The Magic Hour
Over the years, trumpeter Wynton Marsalis has had a tendency to be a different performer in New Orleans, where he's comfortable with his surroundings, and New York City, where he often seems like he's trying too hard. He finished his run of Big Statements at Sony with the bombastic All Rise, which featured some 200 musicians in the kind of production that has become his specialty as he entertains middlebrow arts patrons as the majordomo of Lincoln Center. These stuffed-shirt Lincoln Center audiences often feel like the contemporary versions of the Maggie and Jiggs comic strip characters, but people should not have to wear tuxedos to jazz concerts.
Marsalis has moved to Blue Note, run by the brilliant former CBS jazz director Bruce Lundvall, where informality is the rule and jazz is spelled lower case with an eye to crossing over to new audiences. There is some very unpretentiously good music being made on Blue Note by artists such as Medeski, Martin and Wood, Norah Jones, Patricia Barber, Dr. John, Van Morrison, Soulive, Karl Denson, and Greg Osby, and it's selling. Blue Note is the perfect place for Marsalis right now. He can relax and play music he likes, knowing it will be promoted correctly to an audience that actually likes music as opposed to Big Statements.
Marsalis sounds relaxed on this set, like he's having some fun just playing. His trumpet tone, at turns light and playful or full of blues feeling on muted solos, has never sounded more fully realized. The trumpet-vocal exchange with Dianne Reeves on the beautiful "Feeling of Jazz" is the kind of emotional interaction that defines great music, and Marsalis plays a superb accompaniment to Bobby McFerrin's vocal on "Baby, I Love You." His rapport with the other players -- Eric Lewis on piano, Carlos Henriquez on bass and Ali Jackson on drums -- is similarly as supple and assured as a great basketball team moving the ball up the floor.
The Magic Hour is the kind of album you listen to over and over for sheer enjoyment rather than, like some kind of bad-tasting medicine, because it's somehow good for you. -- John Swenson
Night Train to Nashville: Music City Rhythm & Blues 1945-1970
Get Down With It: The Okeh Sessions
In Greil Marcus' Mystery Train, he tells the story of Little Richard interrupting a discussion of Erich Segal's Love Story on Dick Cavett's show, saying, "SHUT UP! SHUT UP! SHUT UP! Š I HAVE WRITTEN A BOOK Š AND IT'S CALLED HE GOT WHAT HE WANTED BUT HE LOST WHAT HE HAD!" In that story, Little Richard is outrageous in the way people expect him to be, but the book's title -- though there's no evidence he ever actually wrote it -- suggests a more experienced, less-spontaneous artist, and that's the Little Richard heard on Get Down With It. The music may not be as revolutionary as his greatest hits 10 or so years before, but the recordings suggest he was more than a savant. Here he's less ecstatic, but he still swoops through the vocal on "Poor Dog (Who Can't Wag His Own Tail)," and he showboats with his right hand throughout Sam Cooke's "Well All Right." Throughout the album, more than anything else you hear an artist in clear control of his talents.
Along with Little Richard, the hero for much of the album is New Orleanian Larry Williams, known for "Dizzy Miss Lizzy" and "Bony Maronie." As the house producer for Okeh, he created a musical setting that was contemporary, merging Motown, James Brown and southern funk into a sound that was somehow quintessentially Little Richard. He also provided four songs including "Poor Dog," co-written with Johnny "Guitar" Watson. Much of the material was released as The Explosive Little Richard in 1967, but the disc also collects Okeh singles and unreleased tracks, among them two Fats Domino tracks. The highlight of the bonus tracks is the Ennio Morricone-penned title theme to the movie, Hurry Sundown.
Little Richard, Esquerita and Johnny Adams appear on Night Train to Nashville, though none were Nashvillians. The compilation documents Nashville's place in southern R&B history, so Adams and Esquerita are included because they recorded in Nashville, and Little Richard appears in a radio spot. Though the collection's purpose is noble, it's valuable because it's fun. Almost every song has enough personality to make it memorable; an alternate version of Ruth Brown's "(Mama) He Treats Your Daughter Mean," for example, features reverb guitar, barrelhouse sax, and backing vocals singing fireworks-like flourishes throughout the chorus. It's too much but perfect in its way. -- Alex Rawls