Anyone who thinks the Misters Marsalis offer no surprises need only hear “Donna Lee,” the opening track on Music Redeems, a straight-ahead concert recording of a family tribute to pianist and patriarch Ellis Marsalis. The track features Ellis, trumpeter Wynton and the youngest scion, Jason, whistling on the theme and an improvised solo. The whistling itself is a great surprise, but even greater is that Jason outdoes Wynton in imagination and unpredictability. It’s an early high point among many on this excellent, if somewhat flawed, album.
Ellis is the star of Music Redeems, both as headliner and player. He has a light touch and equally light rhythm, filling a group arrangement of his original “Syndrome” with delicate dance figures, and a lyrical solo performance of “After” with the gait of a Broadway routine. He also plays a delightful duet of “Sweet Georgia Brown” with Harry Connick Jr., his onetime student. That performance makes two valuable points: one, that Ellis’ teaching matches his musicianship, and, two, that Connick is a much more interesting pianist than singer.
His sons shine, too. Branford is the most consistent, mixing blues with intellect on “Monkey Puzzle” and laying out a groove, albeit a foreboding one, on “Teo.” Even Ellis III gets in on the action, reading a self-penned (and pretty good) poem for his father. The disc’s major defect isn’t about the performers, but the production: the closing number, “Second Line,” brought the horn players marching into the aisles—without microphones—leaving Ellis onstage with bassist Eric Revis and drummer Herlin Riley, comping for an inaudible frontline. It’s a glaring dark spot on an otherwise glowing record.