How Wynton Marsalis’ latest album fits his philosophy of presenting jazz.
Wynton Marsalis, arguably the most important figure in jazz, recently released his latest album, “The Magic Hour,” which marks the trumpeter’s return to a small-group setting after a longtime focus on larger ensemble composition. “I wanted to restate my basic love of jazz music in a quartet format,” says Marsalis at his official website. It is a recording I’ve highly anticipated largely because his approach to jazz has changed dramatically since he burst onto the jazz scene in 1983 with his first small-group album. How would his growth as an artist reveal itself in this back-to-basics outing?
This artistic ‘180’ invites a look back upon Wynton’s remarkable jazz career. For those who haven’t kept up with the hardest working man in jazz, not any easy task by any means, the changes I refer to deal largely with form and style – changes that reflect not just the whims of his personal taste, but a philosophy of presenting jazz to a broad audience – a viewpoint which, for the purposes of this article, I will call “Wyntonism.”
The Evolution of Wyntonism
The tracks on his first jazz albums followed a familiar form that took shape in the late 1940’s: a tune begins by stating the theme, is followed by improvised solos, and ends by restating the theme. A few Grammy awards later, Marsalis established himself as a talented composer with 1985’s Black Codes from the Underground, an impressive recording that shows an effort to make the old formula more interesting, but it was still a theme–solos–theme album. Of course, there’s no shame in that – the format is a beloved staple of modern jazz to this day, but somewhere along the way, Wynton decided it was boring.
I first saw him perform live in the summer of 1986 at the Artpark amphitheatre near Niagara Falls, NY. When he wasn’t playing, he often walked around behind the band and off-stage, seemingly detached from the music that played on without him. He was still young and not much of a showman at that point. Perhaps he disappeared so that the audience would focus on band members who were playing, perhaps he felt awkward standing around in the bright lights while others soloed, or perhaps he thought it was cool. I thought it was kind of cool, but I was even younger than he was. But now, in hindsight, I believe he was already bored with extended improvised solos. He found himself stuck playing large-venue concerts in a format that was sucking him dry creatively.
Here’s what he had to say about soloing more recently:
"I think there is going to be an end to the old style of jamming on the band stand that was really initiated during Charlie Parker's time. Historically, that was never a part of jazz music, not in the beginning... solos didn't come into fashion until Louis Armstrong and didn't become ingrained into jazz until the bebop thing came along. So I think there will be more emphasis put on presentation and composition as opposed to just soloing, which is a really boring and predictable way of presenting music."
— Wynton Marsalis in Jazztimes (March, 2000)
Wynton was never one to hold his tongue. His outspokenness has been polarizing the jazz world for decades now. The quote above provoked pianist Keith Jarrett to respond, “May I ask whose soloing Mr. Marsalis is referring to?” However, I can personally relate to Wynton’s sentiment. I’ve been bored on the bandstand, and I’ve been bored in the audience, and it is directly related to theme-solos-theme. That’s not to say the format is always boring. Far from it! At other times, it has completely enthralled me. The spontaneity of the improvisation and interplay at work among a small group of talented musicians is in my mind one of the highest and purest forms of art. But a couple of conclusions can be drawn about theme-solos-theme. 1) it quickly wears thin on novice ears and can eventually wear thin on veteran ears (“boring”), and 2) it leaves little room for variety within a tune (“predictable”).
Wynton’s solutions to these problems started to emerge in the late ‘80’s and early ‘90’s, coinciding with the formation of his septet and the creation of Jazz at Lincoln Center, a program helmed by Marsalis, who continues to direct the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra (LCJO). A shift in style came with 1989’s pivotal Majesty of the Blues album, on which he drew upon his native New Orleans roots to evoke early jazz techniques in a post-bop era. Critics who decried his early-album efforts as merely imitative finally found something original in his new “voice.” This New Orleans influence can be heard in almost all of his subsequent original compositions resulting in what could be called a “Marsalis style.”
Soon after Majesty, his compositions became more ambitious and displayed a strong interest in storytelling through music. That is, his music tended to be representative of stories in contrast to the generally abstract nature of theme-solos-theme. His first recorded extended composition, a 37-minute piece called “Blue Interlude (The Bittersweet Saga of Sugar Cane and Sweetie Pie),” is characterized by numerous themes, frequent tempo changes, and shorter solos designed to work in tandem to create a larger picture. The four horn parts of his septet gave him a more vibrant palette with which to paint his aural pictures. More extended works followed, including In This House, On This Morning, based on the structure of a typical African-American church worship service, the inventive ballet score Citi Movement, the Pulitzer Prize-winning oratorio Blood on the Fields, and culminating in 2002’s All Rise, which featured over 200 performers, including the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the LCJO.
Such large scale works obviously show more than just a desire to connect with an audience; they were written in pursuit of creating high art. The bulk of Marsalis’ compositions of the past fifteen years could easily be labeled “concert hall jazz.” He’s not the first jazzman to go there: Duke Ellington crafted extended, high-concept works as well, in hope of gaining respect worthy of Gershwin from the classical world, but Marsalis has come closer to that goal, often at the risk of leaving hard-core jazz fans behind. And this brings us back to his latest effort.
The Magic Hour
It’s true that Marsalis never abandoned small-group jazz altogether – a series of “Standard Time” recordings featured Wynton’s interpretations of jazz standards, but The Magic Hour is the first quartet release in what seems like ages to highlight his own compositions. It is his debut album with Blue Note Records, a label which was built on theme-solos-theme long before signing crossover sensation Norah Jones. The question foremost in my mind: would the tunes be consistent with the Marsalis style of the long-form works? In other words, how does Wyntonism apply to just one horn and a rhythm section? The short answer: it depends on the tune. With the exception of the title track, Wyntonism appears to suggest that, for theme-solos-theme to work, simplicity is the key.
The first track is a vocal called “Feeling of Jazz,” with words by Marsalis sung by Dianne Reeves. It sounds like a classic Ellington tune, and Reeves turns in a performance reminiscent of Ella Fitzgerald. Wynton solos deftly between vocal phrases while his lyrics sing the praises of how jazz moves its audience. It’s as if to say, “You don’t have to understand all of the complexities within jazz – the overall feeling of it is the thing.”
The next several tracks offer simple, syncopated melodies that an audience can easily grasp. “You and Me” and “Baby, I Love You,” come closest to incorporating early jazz styles. The latter was co-written by Bobby McFerrin, who also sings the vocal part, and the result is the album’s least worthy tune, but listenable nonetheless. “Free to Be” is moderately up-tempo, and the only track on which the band “lets loose” like in the olden days of 1985. Wynton takes an extended solo here that keeps the listener engaged because of the simple chord progressions underneath.
“Big Fat Hen” also features a lengthy trumpet solo, but this time over a hypnotic, repetitive rhythm sustained by the pianist, Eric Lewis – an effect not unlike Ravel’s Bolero. “Skipping” gives us another playful, highly syncopated melody that is yet easily grasped by the listener. It is followed by “Sophie Rose-Rosalee,” a pretty, melodic waltz with nice harmon mute work by Wynton. It sounds like something he could have written twenty years ago, which is fine by me – Black Codes remains one of my all-time favorite albums.
The album closes with “The Magic Hour,” which finds Wynton back in story-telling mode. It represents the hour before the kids go to bed, and the hour after the kids have gone to sleep. The first part, that of the restless kids, consists of a long flurry of notes, both on upper range trumpet and piano. The effect is highly irritating, but he can get away with it because it represents the kids. Eventually, thankfully, the kids fall asleep and we’re left to unwind like the parents sharing a nice, romantic moment. I expected more of this form of Wyntonism on this album, but I’m glad it’s limited to one track. Like so much of his other representative works, it’s very impressive, but I usually lack the stamina to listen to it often.
Magic Hour also features Carlos Henriquez on bass and Ali Jackson on drums, both of whom do a fine job in rather background roles. Bass and drum solos do not figure prominently in Wyntonism. Lewis is a highly-regarded pianist who does wonders rhythmically, but his playing on this album is a little too understated for my taste. Marsalis himself has never failed to impress as a trumpet player. He can do it all, though if more trumpeters could match that upper-register flurry on “Magic Hour,” I’m not sure that they’d want to.
In 1990, I was in a conversation with Joe Lill, a Chicago trumpeter and director of the jazz ensembles at North Park University. Though Marsalis was widely considered to be the “best” jazz trumpet player in the world, Lill was unenthusiastic about Wynton. “I can’t wait to hear him play ten years from now,” I recall him saying. So what does he think now we’re past that point? I caught up with Joe recently and put the question to him:
“Now, for the first time, Wynton sounds like Wynton to me,” Lill says. “Some of it I like, some of it I don’t. And that’s how it should be. Wynton shouldn’t be trying to please me or anyone else; that’s how art is. You have an opinion, find a forum for expressing it and see what happens from there. The only fault would be in saying that his way is the 'right' way… He’s been a great ambassador for America’s music, and puts his money, and more importantly, his time, where his mouth is.”
Wynton once described album recordings as snapshots of where an artist is in his musical journey at that given time. The Magic Hour indeed displays his growth as an artist and is ultimately a satisfying, refreshing bit of small group jazz. It might not be as compositionally complex as I was anticipating, but it nonetheless complies with Wyntonism in keeping the audience engaged and guessing. Theme-solos-theme requires a delicate balance to make it accessible to novice jazz listeners while providing enough meat for veteran ears - a balance that Marsalis essentially achieves on Magic Hour.