Wynton Marsalis: don’t upset the other guests

Although I like the album, I can’t help feeling disappointed by the lack of fire in ‘The Magic Hour,’ by Wynton Marsalis.

I’ve loved Marsalis’ albums for years; my earliest prize acquisitions at record fairs and London’s Mole Jazz record shop were Think Of One, Black Codes from the Undergound, Uptown Ruler and Marsalis Standard Time: vol.1. They led me on a fantastic quest to find out more by this trumpeter: Hothouse Flowers, The Majesty of the Blues and later on to From the Plantation to the Penitentiary

There’s a fierce energy to the early albums, a young trumpeter looking to make his mark in the difficult, post-Miles Davis era; one fighting to bring his own fantastic flair, technical brilliance and creative force out of Davis’ shadow and forge  own his path. Even if you don’t necessarily like the music, this desire alone is worth respect; especially when you consider how far Davis’ cloak falls; a bit like a saxophonist trying to make their way post-Coltrane and post-Shorter. 

I never thought the adjective ‘impeccable’ could be a pejorative. But it’s exactly the right term to apply to Marsalis’ The Magic Hour; it is totally impeccable, deftly handled and completely sure of itself. But – and here’s the rub – it utterly lacks that fierceness fuelling earlier albums, which make them so memorable; the rhythmic inventiveness of the way some of the classic standards are realised on Standard Time: vol.1 may feel a little forced, a little too clever for their own good, but at least there’s a desire for innovation behind what’s going on. The Magic Hour lacks any of that; it feels safe, midde-of-the-road, the Phil Collins of the jazz world. (Now that’s an insult..)

Admittedly, it was Marsalis’ debut on the Blue Note label in 2004, and perhaps, given the majestic might of the company’s history, there might have been a sense of ‘not rocking the boat’ about the recording. But that’s what Marsalis does best: rocks the boat, tears it up and lights a fire under the debris. But there’s none of that vibrant, destructive revellry about ‘Baby, I Love You,’ even with luminary Bobby McFerrin aboard.

Even ‘Big Fat Hen,’ with its infectious low-down-and-dirty groove, can’t help waddling around in what is basically a twelve-bar blues.

When I want an album that won’t upset the other guests, that will just sit in the corner with a quiet drink and mind its own business, then The Magic Hour is perfect. But when I want an album that challenges the ear, that makes you marvel at the creativity being unleashed, that burns with an energy so bright that you have to wear shades, not to appear cool, but to shield your eyes from the brightness, then I’ll reach for a different one; ‘Chambers Of Tain’ on Black Codes From The Underground, for instance. 

The Magic Hour is so completely relaxed, sure of its own accomplishments, that it almost puts its feet up and falls backwards out of its chair.

Sorry, Wynton: I’m a fan of the innovations, but The Magic Hour, with its pipe and slippers, is – if I might put it like this – too safe for comfort ?

%d bloggers like this: