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April 2003

The Marsalis Family
The Marsalis Family: A Jazz Celebration
Marsalis Music

Ellis Marsalis-pianist, jazz educator, sire of champions-and his wife, Dolores, neglected to produce a bass player, so homeboy Roland Guerin joined the family for the cheerful New Orleans concert captured on A Jazz Celebration. All hands shine on sextet performances of Ellis' "Swingin' at the Haven," "Nostalgic Impressions" and "Twelve's It," the latter with Harry Connick Jr. sitting in to play a spiky piano solo. Connick and guest Lucien Barbarin team up on "St. James Infirmary," in which Barbarin plays beguiling wah-wah trombone and Connick reverts to piano ploys with which he wowed Jackson Square tourists when he was a boy wonder. Connick's vocal is laid back and nicely phrased, too.

For the rest, it's all Marsalises-and Guerin. Ellis invests his trio version of "The Surrey With the Fringe on the Top" with relaxation and bebop wisdom. In case the audience forgot what town they were in, he works in a quote from "When We Danced at the Mardi Gras." Youngest son Jason concentrates his solo in the drum set's low notes, pleasing the crowd with a final roll around the toms. His brushwork is restrained and nicely timed on the other trio piece, a short, reflective version of Ellis' ballad "After." Delfeayo, boisterous and exceedingly tromboney, is featured to great effect on Tyree Glenn's "Sultry Serenade," aka "How Could You Do a Thing Like That to Me?" He delights in finding humorous alternate notes to use in "running out of key," as the preboppers used to say.

The three-horn front line recalls Wynton's and Branford's stint two decades ago with Art Blakey. They do some of their most incisive playing here, in solos that are economical and to the point. Two examples: Branford's tenor sax choruses on the bop harmonic pattern of "Swingin' at the Haven" and Wynton's joyous unaccompanied introduction to "Struttin' With Some Barbecue." Together, the elder brothers are astonishing in their trumpet-soprano counterpoint flurries on "Nostaligic Impressions." Following Wynton's wry spoken comment about brotherhood, they have a spirited instrumental conversation in Branford's "Cain and Abel." The conversation grows in intensity and becomes an argument before it is resolved more satisfactorily than Cain and Abel's was.

"Struttin' With Some Barbecue" is no mere indulgent tip of the hat to the tradition, but rather a reminder that this stuff is in the Marsalis' New Orleans bones. In his salad days, Ellis worked his share of traditional gigs. He shows that he retained the lessons and knows how to make them work in his modern style. Wynton's two choruses are full of Louis Armstrong's spirit; Delfeayo's simply full of spirit, with one of those piquant runs out of key. I keep zapping the CD player back to Branford's soprano choruses on "Barbecue." With his logical construction, audacious ideas and broad, unrestricted tone so unlike the squeezed soprano sound of many post-Coltrane players, this classic solo transcends stylistic categories.

Reservations about aspects of Wynton's and Branford's recent work slip into the shadows when I listen to this family gathering. The concert marked the establishment of a chair in Ellis' name at the University of New Orleans and helped to fund it. Connick told the audience, which included Mrs. Marsalis, "If Ellis deserves a chair, Delores deserves a throne."

Originally published in April 2003
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