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Magic Hour (2004)

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Bobby McFerrin

As his first album of all-original material (performed with a quintet or less) since his 1988 release Thick in the South: Soul Gestures in Southern Blue, Vol. 1, and his first album for Blue Note Records, trumpeter Wynton Marsalis' The Magic Hour is a disappointing return to progressive, small-group jazz. This is not to say that there aren't some excellent things here, but taken as an album, The Magic Hour seems logy and inconsequential. Featuring the talented chops of pianist Eric Lewis, bassist Carlos Henríquez, and drummer Ali Jackson, Marsalis offers up a low-key grab bag of everything he's done thus far in his career. It's not a good sign when a predominantly instrumental jazz album begins with a vocal jazz number, albeit a stellar one featuring the epic Dianne Reeves. It would be a great start to a Reeves album, but as an opener, "Feeling of Jazz" only seems to be postponing the jazz. Similarly irritating is Bobby McFerrin's sickeningly cutesy guest vocal on the trite "Baby, I Love You," an original tune co-written by the singer and Marsalis that sounds thrown together in the studio. It's a failed and disappointing pairing that probably sounded better in theory than in practice. Most of the other original compositions, while not bad, are not really that impressive either, lacking the invention, humor, and general sense of purpose that hallmarked Marsalis' early quartet albums, Black Codes (From the Underground) and J Mood. On the upside, "Big Fat Hen" is a loose and soulful second-line mix of barnyard soul and Miles Davis modalism. It's easily the best moment on the disc, contemporizing Marsalis' take on the New Orleans jazz tradition while threatening to get everybody out of their seats and dancing -- no small achievement in the modern world of staid, concert-hall jazz. Even more impressive though is the extensive 13-minute title track, which closes the disc and finds Marsalis fearlessly exploring "Flight of the Bumblebee"-style arpeggiations, bug-like squeals, Count Basie-esque swing, Latin rhythms, and elegiac balladry all in one composition. That The Magic Hour ends with a resigned and gorgeous rendition of Marsalis' trademark ballad -- Hoagy Carmichael's "Stardust" -- is both a poignant and brilliant summation of how Marsalis continually returns to his roots in his quest to both further and protect jazz. However, the surprising experimentation and clarity of vision of these two tracks only underlines the disappointing lack of such qualities in the rest of the album. ~ Matt Collar