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Marsalis’ Magic Hour

Wynton Marsalis Quartet Celebrates First Blue Note Recording

By Jorge Padilla, Jr.

Wynton Marsalis Quartet

Symphony Hall

April 28, 8 p.m.

The Wynton Marsalis Quartet blew the roof off Symphony Hall in a spectacular two-hour performance at the end of April. The group was on that night as they celebrated the premier of their first album under the Blue Note label, “The Magic Hour,” and believe me it was.

Mr. Marsalis makes his label debut with his remarkable quartet -- drummer Ali Jackson, bassist Carlos Henriquez, and piano phenomenon Eric Lewis. This concert, presented by FleetBoston Celebrity Series, was part of a nationwide tour promoting Marsalis’ first jazz ensemble studio recording in five years. The talented quartet was nothing less than exceptional on that evening as they took Boston from Kansas City jazz to the hard-bop 1950s to modern jazz in two moving sets.

The mood for the concert was established from the moment the quartet took the stage. Marsalis, without introductions, acknowledgements, or hesitation, kicked the group off with an original, “Free to Be.” The piece was an easy, medium swing, perfect for opening a great concert. “Free to Be” featured Marsalis and the Monk Competition -- an international music competition -- winner, Eric Lewis. Both soloists wasted no time showing off their virtuosic technical and musical capabilities. Marsalis was up and down the horn effortlessly at lightning speeds. Mr. Lewis, who got hotter as the show progressed, was full of melodic, technical, and harmonic surprises. He definitely kept the audience on the edge of their seats. His playing was meditative and captivating. He enveloped you in his musical ideas so much it was as if you were experiencing his musical world right with him. Closing your eyes, you could wrap yourself in his statement to the point that you could walk almost every way of the solo with him.

After the tasty opener, Marsalis introduced his group and quickly proceeded to play another Magic Hour original, “Baby, I Love You.” This playful, bouncy ditty was written by Marsalis in collaboration with Bobby McFerrin, who sings on the recording. “That song has a two-beat groove kind of swing,” Marsalis said.

The tune was reminiscent of the old Kansas City style as it opened with a stride style piano solo. Marsalis was incomparable on this tune. After showing off his dexterity in the opener, he showed his beautiful lyrical side. Also featured on this tune was Carlos Henriquez, who has been in collaboration with Wynton Marsalis since he was 14. Henriquez showed off his skills at the bass, maintaining the bouncy groove and flying through the changes with fluid ease. By now, as you can imagine, the group was swinging hard... I mean hard!

The third tune changed the entire mood of the concert, all for the better of course. “You and Me,” another Marsalis original, was a Spanish influenced, two-beat, flamenco style tune. Marsalis introduces new colors that included handclaps and arco bass. The tune opened with Marsalis and drummer Jackson trading clap rhythms, adding flavor to the evening.

The New Orleans style samba, “Big Fat Hen” followed, introducing Boston local and Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra affiliate, trombonist Andre Heyward. Heyward, who is also a winner of the Monk Competition, was an excellent addition to the group. His gorgeous tone commanded in Symphony Hall, and his personality added to the musical diversity of the quartet. This piece also featured Jackson’s rhythmic prowess.

The first half was concluded with a burning rendition of Ray Noble’s “Cherokee.” Henriquez handled the bass beautifully, walking through the changes effortlessly. Jackson never relinquished the groove. And then there was Mr. Marsalis who just completely scorched the hall with his incredible solo.

The second half was mostly dedicated to the album title track, “The Magic Hour.” According to Marsalis, the extended piece “covers the four basic attitudes of jazz: 4/4 swing, Afro-Hispanic rhythm, blues, and the ballad” and is characterized by “the juxtaposition of augmented and diminishing sounds.” When asked what the magic hour is, he says, “For kids, the one hour before they go to bed. For parents, the one hour after the kids go to sleep.”

The extended piece was four sections long. The first, featuring Marsalis, was an intense 4/4 swing representing the time that the kids are “running around and acting crazy.” The second section, which featured Heyward, was a medium blues used “to calm the kids down” and a time when the parents share mutual recognition. The third section, which featured Henriquez and Jackson, was an easy swing representing “realization” for the parents and the “quiet bedtime story to put the kids to sleep.” The final section was the “ballad for reflection” played by Eric Lewis. The most emphatic moment in the concert occurred during Lewis’s ballad. It wasn’t the typical, loud, shout-chorus type ending to an exciting concert. Lewis played the ballad mostly in the mezzo piano dynamic range with such a beautiful sensitivity to music that it truly was a time for reflection.

As expected, the Wynton Marsalis Quartet received a standing ovation. They came back out and performed the beautiful ballad “Embraceable You” as an encore. All one could do was close one’s eyes and be taken away by the music.

One couldn’t help but admire the concern and appreciation these men had for jazz music. Marsalis says, “I always try to affirm jazz -- blues and swing, written and improvised music.” Yeah, I think you’ve affirmed it, Mr. Marsalis.