The Magic Hour
Blue Note Records
"Comparisons," both Shakespeare and Jonathan Swift said, "are odious." When it comes to Dave Douglas and Wynton Marsalis, they are also unavoidable. Douglas and Marsalis are the two most prominent trumpet players in jazz, but their renown is of two different orders.
Douglas, now 40, is a foot soldier in the jazz wars, a working-class hero who has gigged and recorded all over the world with the famous and the obscure from every nook and cranny of jazz. Don Byron's klezmer band. European outcats. Girl singers. Lebanese oud players. Dance companies. Joe Lovano. John Zorn's Masada. Between 1993 and 2000 he recorded a widely admired series of albums on small labels that touched genres from free-bop to postmodern chamber music to "jazz-Balkan improv."
Then, in 2000, Douglas signed with RCA Bluebird, and raised his profile with albums like Soul on Soul and The Infinite and Freak In. But even before the association with a major label, Douglas had begun receiving those awards and prizes with which international jazz critics collectively establish the top positions in their hierarchy. By now, Douglas has been named "Trumpet Player of the Year" and "Jazz Artist of the Year" and "Composer of the Year" and the leader of "Record of the Year" by virtually every relevant publication that covers jazz.
But Dave Douglas' reputation exists within the small, insular niche of the jazz culture. Wynton Marsalis, by contrast, is a superstar-arguably the only living jazz musician famous enough to be identifiable by his first name only, even in the world at large. He is only two years older than Douglas, but he got an earlier start. He was a prodigy who attended Juilliard when he was 17 (Douglas went to Berklee), joined Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers at 18 and released his first album as a leader when he was 20. He has since recorded approximately 40 jazz and classical titles under his own name for the Columbia/Sony labels, nine of which won Grammy awards. (Douglas has received one Grammy nomination, for The Infinite.)
Marsalis is music director of the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra and is America's (if not the world's) most recognized spokesman for jazz, through his syndicated programs on the Public Broadcasting System and National Public Radio. He has received a Pulitzer Prize (for his oratorio on slavery, Blood on the Fields) as well as awards from the United Nations and the U.S. Congress. Marsalis is more than a world famous player and composer. He is an institution, if not an industry.
The professional successes that these two artists have enjoyed have come largely because of the jazz press in the case of Douglas and in spite of the jazz press in the case of Marsalis. Way back in 1982, Gary Giddins, writing in the Atlantic Monthly, in a mostly laudatory piece heralding the arrival of a 21-year-old trumpet virtuoso (from New Orleans, no less), set the tone for much Marsalis criticism to follow. "Marsalis," Giddins said, "hasn't found his mature style.... His music is almost cubistic in its calculatingly aggressive attack, and his ballad playing is occasionally...given to preening."
Marsalis' detractors would argue that he has never "found his own style." As artist, as spokesperson and as impresario of Jazz at Lincoln Center, Marsalis has taken an adamant position that the jazz aesthetic must be based in the great mainstream tradition, and must be defended against corrupting and diluting influences like popular and world musics. Douglas, by contrast, has embraced precisely these influences. Marsalis' critics believe that his conservative ideology has stunted his growth as an artist. David Hajdu, in another article in the Atlantic Monthly, from March 2003, summarizes this position (without necessarily subscribing to it himself): "Marsalis and his adherents are said to have codified the music in a stifling orthodoxy and inhibited the revolutionary impulses that have always advanced jazz."
The respected New Yorker critic Whitney Balliett goes even further: "Marsalis," Balliett once wrote, "has never moved me as a trumpet player."
Douglas and Marsalis have just released new albums. Both Strange Liberation and The Magic Hour feature working small bands. Both consist entirely of original compositions by their leaders. Both feature high-profile special guests. (Douglas adds guitarist Bill Frisell on eight of his album's 11 tracks, and Marsalis brings in Dianne Reeves and Bobby McFerrin to sing one song each.) Both offer exceptional recorded sound. (Engineer Joe Ferla did the Douglas disc in DSD, and Patrick Smith recorded the Marsalis album.) Both are on major labels. (For Marsalis, The Magic Hour marks a turning point, his departure from Columbia after 22 years, and the launch of a new relationship with Blue Note.)
If all of these factors were not sufficient to assure that the two recordings would be placed in side-by-side comparison, there is Stanley Crouch's column in the April 2003 issue of this magazine, "Putting the White Man in Charge." Crouch, who has been Marsalis' most consistent advocate among jazz critics (as well as his business associate), offered his opinion that the mostly white jazz critical establishment has been so supportive of Dave Douglas because Douglas is white. While claiming that white writers got involved in jazz criticism in order to plug the careers of white jazz musicians is almost as ludicrous as claiming that they got in it for the money, Crouch followed up this opinion with one even more stunning. He postulated that Marsalis' negative reviews from white jazz critics were motivated by penis envy-literally, by Marsalis' "access to a far higher quality of female than any of them could ever imagine."
All of this controversy and comparative context might threaten a distraction from the music at hand, but only until you play Strange Liberation. From the opening track, "A Single Sky," the sound, the ensemble blend, freezes you right in your chair. It is a sound not dominated by any one instrument, not even the leader's, one that is collectively, dramatically assertive. It is built up from the contrasting textures of Douglas' flaring brightness, Chris Potter's clarion penetrations on tenor saxophone or bass clarinet, Uri Caine's Fender Rhodes (sometimes laying on thick densities, sometimes streaming thin lines of color) and Bill Frisell's ubiquitous guitar-all energized by the variable, taut forward force created by bassist James Genus and drummer Clarence Penn.
Like Marsalis, Douglas commands a wide variety of tones on trumpet. But Douglas' open horn has more brass and less vibrato, and his muted sound has needles in it. He is much more willing to slip off the center of a note, to shoot his way into an idea. Almost as much as Marsalis, he gives the impression that he can do anything he wants with his instrument. But his focus is always the evolving ensemble, clarified through the lenses of his own provocative compositions. Douglas is often out front, with lines so free they feel abstract until they cohere into fresh form. Just as often he commingles, submerges, reappears.
What gives this particular Douglas band its unique identity is the inspired decision to bring in Frisell. He is one of the few players in jazz who is a towering individual personality on his instrument and who can yet adapt himself seamlessly into any ensemble worthy of him, in the process enormously deepening and enriching it. The silver raindrops of Frisell's guitar notes illuminate this music without ever crowding it. And when he solos-to the extent that anyone "solos" in a Douglas project-he commands the full depth of field, from the foreground of the current moment, decaying back into eternity.
To choose only two of Douglas' 11 strong compositional concepts, "Just Say This" and "Mountains From the Train" are extraordinary in dissimilar ways. The former is one of the most affecting of the many jazz elegies written for the events of 9/11. Douglas' muted trumpet lines hang in the air like grief and awe for which no words are possible, while Frisell's guitar cuts black, isolated chords. In the latter, the horns portray only the background landscape while Frisell's guitar picks out the peaks of a string of passing mountains, shimmering in the distance.
Blue Note should have no trouble selling Wynton Marsalis' first recording for the label. The Magic Hour is upbeat and accessible and immaculate in execution. There are many fine moments, such as Marsalis' long, diverse, whip-cracking solo on "Free to Be," greatly enhanced by pianist Eric Lewis' jarring contrapuntal accompaniment. "Big Fat Hen" is the most striking of many examples of drummer Ali Jackson's gift for spilling and tumbling momentums both complex and ferocious. The opening of the title track has Marsalis spitting notes so fast they finally smear together into long piercing squeals, a technical display that few living trumpet players could match. Not only are Marsalis' famous chops intact, they serve a flow of ideas always guided by a sophisticated musical intelligence-and he always swings.
But while Strange Liberation sounds like music born of a creative process, The Magic Hour sounds like music born of a thought process. Marsalis' decisions for this album reflect his oft-stated philosophy that there are "four basic attitudes of jazz": 4/4 swing (illustrated, often strongly, throughout), Afro-Hispanic rhythm (in the samba groove of "Big Fat Hen"), blues (in "Feeling of Jazz" and many other places) and the ballad (in "Sophie Rose-Rosalee"). If this approach sounds self-conscious, it also feels that way, track by track. But a more pressing issue is Marsalis' unfortunate addiction to cuteness. The candy-coated quality of this music is audible in the two-beat bounce of tunes like "You & Me" (with hand claps, to make sure we get the point that this is a happy ditty), in "Baby, I Love You" (a silly song written and gushed by Bobby McFerrin) and in "Skipping" (described as a "kids-play number," full of precocious stops and starts). Marsalis' sound and phrasing on muted trumpet is often cloying. For example, "Sophie Rose-Rosalee" is intended as the album's intense ballad moment, but it comes off as more sentimental than fervent.
The most ambitious piece is the 13-minute title track. It attempts to portray in music two "magic hours": the one before bedtime (for kids) and the one after the kids have gone to sleep (for their parents). Its sections, each of which illustrates one of Marsalis' "four basic attitudes of jazz," are disjointed and collectively ineffective in telling the story.
Then there is Marsalis' pronounced historicism, which often sounds like posturing. The broad, raspy plunger-muted Cootie Williams persona introduced early in the opening track, "Feeling of Jazz," reappears throughout. But it is not Marsalis' allusions to the past, in themselves, that have given rise to the accusation that he fails to meet the overriding imperative in the jazz aesthetic, innovation. It is not even the recognition, in the staccato opening announcement of "Free to Be," that Miles Davis has preceded him. Rather, it is a subtle deflation of expectation in so much of Marsalis' music. It is an intimation that it comes from a highly erudite process of assembly from the literature, rather than from inner necessity.
On Douglas' Strange Liberation, the buffer of this process is not present. His music is conducted from the musicians to the listener, directly. Strange Liberation possesses, in spades, that quality of immediacy essential to jazz. That quality originates, not from the assumption that the notes have never been played before, but from a sense that the music is coming into being, in real time, as urgent creative impulses.
The most important difference between these two recordings is revealed by "Feeling of Jazz," the vocal track with Dianne Reeves. Here, Marsalis utilizes Reeves' excellent voice to tell us, over and over, that "jazz lifts the soul." Douglas, on the other hand, through the visceral creativity of Strange Liberation, renders and embodies that feeling, with no further need to tell about it. It is a distinction that has nothing to do with the race, much less the "access to high quality females," of either musician. It has to do with what T. S. Eliot described as the "objective perception of value on which a civilized society must rest."