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Before & After with Delfeayo Marsalis

Family candor

Delfeayo Marsalis
Delfeayo Marsalis (photo: Keith Major)

Walking into trombonist and producer Delfeayo Marsalis’ home in Uptown New Orleans is a little like stepping into a hyperbaric chamber of creative stimulation. A piano peeks out from beneath sheet music and a dozen or so awards. Books like John McCusker’s Creole Trombone: Kid Ory and the Early Years of Jazz sit on the coffee table and line the wall space not adorned with art, while trombones and horn parts battle for space in the corners. It’s a fitting home base for an artist whose creative output has long been characterized by big-picture thinking that aims to provoke as much thought as it does enjoyment.

The latest example of that work came in 2014 with The Last Southern Gentlemen (Troubadour Jass), an homage to the essential human element of jazz and his first full-length recording with his father, Ellis Marsalis. (Delfeayo is now 50, three years younger than his brother Wynton, who is a year younger than their brother Branford.) And while the trombonist’s acclaimed production skills have taken a backseat to performance lately, his producer’s hat is always on-a point he made abundantly clear while offering insights on the following selections.

1. American Jazz Quintet

“Never More” (In the Beginning, AFO). Alvin Battiste, clarinet; Warren Bell, alto saxophone; Harold Battiste, tenor saxophone; Ellis Marsalis, piano; Richard Payne, bass. Recorded in 1956.

BEFORE: On the heels of the passing of Mr. Harold Battiste, you’re playing a song that features my father and Alvin Battiste, and if I’m not mistaken it’s called “Never More.”

In every town, used to be there’d be the set of musicians and the cats could play. In Pittsburgh, these guys ended up on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Those guys could play. And in Detroit it was Marcus Belgrave and his boys. So that’s how it sounds to me. It sounds like a group of musicians that if a traveling musician were to come to town and say, “Hey, we need some cats who can play,” they’d call this group. If it is my dad, I’m not used to hearing him sound that way.

AFTER: A lot is said about my dad and his influence on musicians, but to be honest, that’s just the New Orleans way. There are so many teachers, like Harold Battiste, Alvin Batiste, Kidd Jordan, John Longo, John Fernandez, Danny Barker, [a guitarist, banjoist and singer who] taught the whole traditional New Orleans crew that’s playing [today], the guys who are now in their 50s and 60s. You know, [trumpeter] Leroy Jones and [trombonist] Lucien Barbarin.

These are all musicians who love the music so much that they’ve given up much of their time and many hours of their lives to help the younger musicians grow.

2. Abdullah Ibrahim & Ekaya

“Calypso Minor” (Sotho Blue, Sunnyside). Ibrahim, piano; Andrae Murchison, trombone; Cleave Guyton, alto saxophone, flute; Keith Loftis, tenor saxophone; Jason Marshall, baritone saxophone; Belden Bullock, bass; George Gray, drums.

Recorded in 2011.

BEFORE: Immediately I can tell, just from the sound quality, that this is more recent. I don’t know who it is immediately, but the bass has that dreaded bass direct sound, a rubbery kind of sound. I would have edited out the bass solo. Sorry, bassist, whoever you are. It’s a pretty long bass solo compared to the other solos.

It sounds good. It’s well presented, but it doesn’t have a certain kind of bite that I like. But it’s good music. I like that it doesn’t sound like the guys are just runnin’ a bunch of patterns. They’re trying to talk, and to me the gauge of a great soloist is how much he or she sounds like they’re talking as opposed to running scales or patterns [that sound] like gibberish.

AFTER: Oh! OK. … I actually realized that some of my early harmony understanding came from playing with [Ibrahim]-even though I didn’t realize it as I started to compose.

It’s from a French film he scored called No Fear, No Die, from 1990.

Again, interesting; I can see now that it’s for a soundtrack. Maybe the design for the soundtrack is a little different. It probably worked out perfectly.

3. Elvin Jones

“Tintiyana” (Midnight Walk, Atlantic). Jones, drums; Thad Jones, trumpet; Hank Mobley, tenor saxophone; Dollar Brand (Abdullah Ibrahim), piano; Don Moore, bass. Recorded in 1966.

BEFORE: I can tell it’s an older recording. Have no idea who it is. Seems like they got this song in the studio, because they’re not really owning the song but they’re playing it and sometimes that’s a great part of the experience. … I feel similarly about this as I did with the Abdullah Ibrahim song, where it doesn’t really seem like it gets to a climactic spot. That may be because they’re trying to figure out what is going on with the song. Just from a sound standpoint I would say that has to be something from the ’60s.

It was actually written by Abdullah as Dollar Brand.

AFTER: Are you kidding me?! Man, that was a tame day for Elvin. But the other part of that is these musicians, they performed and recorded so much. I remember asking Elvin about the A Love Supreme session and he just said, “You know, we just went in and did what we did every day.” And that’s how they approached it. Now we look at that recording like, “Oh, it’s such a thing.” So that’s kind of what that song sounds like: These guys came in and they played. I’m sure they got that song at the date and they’re just trying to figure out what to do with it.

4. Preservation Hall Jazz Band

“Rattlin’ Bones” (That’s It! , Sony Legacy). Mark Braud, trumpet, background vocals; Charlie Gabriel, clarinet, background vocals; Clint Maedgen, tenor saxophone, background vocals; Ben Jaffe, banjo, background vocals; Rickie Monie, piano; Ronell Johnson, sousaphone; Joe Lastie, drums; Freddie Lonzo, vocals. Recorded in 2012.

BEFORE: Ha! That’s an old riff. Oh, the big fat booty! Oh yeah, this is a contemporary recording. … The trumpet player’s playing is more modern than what you would [normally] hear in that style. Trumpet’s got good strong chops. I’m not sure exactly who that is, reminds me of a couple of different people in a couple of different instances. Tuba is good; vocal is a little loud. The band sounds like they’re in the background, but that might work for the kind of sound that they were trying to get. This is a good song. I think it really captures that New Orleans feeling in the way the musicians like to play spontaneously.

AFTER: Is that my cousin on trumpet, Mark Braud? Yeah. I was thinking Andrew Baham was playing trumpet. Mark’s [playing here] is similar to the way I’ve heard Andrew Baham play. They bring that modern sound, some of the things that Wynton did, and they bring that into the traditional sound. Branford isn’t always a fan of that, but I like it. Mark had good strong chops. I’m gonna call you for a gig, cousin!

The vocal may have also been overdubbed. If you overdub any instrument it’s hard to recreate the balance; it’s either gonna be too loud or too soft. For some reason, when you have a group of instruments and then you do an overdub it’s almost impossible to make it sound like it’s in the same room at the same time. Or they had [the vocalist] isolated and the rest of the band was in the same room. That’s just something I know from having done overdubs. You can come close but it’s very difficult to balance.

5. The Curtis Fuller Sextette

“Kachin,” (Imagination, Savoy). Fuller, trombone; Thad Jones, trumpet; Benny Golson, tenor saxophone; McCoy Tyner, piano; Jimmy Garrison, bass; Dave Bailey, drums. Recorded in 1959.

BEFORE: Curtis Fuller. It’s such a distinctive sound. Hmm. Yeah. Three or four notes and you know immediately. Ha! Yeah, this is early Curtis. It’s from the late ’50s, huh? This has the kind of intensity that I like. Oh, that’s one of the records with Benny Golson. I don’t know this record. Sounds like Van Gelder’s studio, too. [Ed. note: He’s correct regarding the studio.] I couldn’t hear it with Curtis playing but I can hear it now that Benny Golson is playing. This might be the early ’60s too. It’s either late ’50s or early ’60s; if I had my headphones I could tell. Oh, this is one of Curtis’ tunes. He liked to write tunes where the harmony moves a certain way.

This is like an inspirational preacher. It’s like, you know about Martin Luther King, you know “I Have a Dream” and we know about “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop.” But there were hundreds, if not thousands, of other speeches that were that inspiring, and that’s the way it is to hear Curtis. It may not be one of the classic songs that we’re familiar with, but he knew how to tell a story.

AFTER: Thad again! It’s an elusive sound. It’s just somebody I’m not as familiar with.

6. John Ellis & Double-Wide

“Booker” (Charm, Parade Light). Ellis, tenor saxophone; Alan Ferber, trombone; Gary Versace, organ; Matt Perrine, sousaphone; Jason Marsalis, drums, cymbals. Recorded in 2014.

BEFORE: Nicely articulated. Again, it’s a pop kind of recording. You don’t get the sense that the guys are in the same room. It’s a different emotional feeling.

Is that my little brother, Jason? And Rick Trolsen? It doesn’t really sound like Rick but I’m trying to think of other trombone players that he played with. Jason did some stuff with John Ellis. I could see it being John Ellis on tenor. The trombone was good, well articulated. Trolsen’s got a little more grease in the stew.

I like to hear what they sound like together and here everybody’s isolated. You hear what they’re playing but it’s a different sensitivity.

AFTER: It’s good. They got the New Orleans feel. I like a little more of the street sound, a little bit more of that edge on it-like from that Curtis [track]. It’s a different time period, but you know what I mean. That’s what I personally like when I hear the New Orleans groove. … Yeah, it makes sense that it wouldn’t be Trolsen, ’cause, yeah, he got grit.

7. Kai Winding & J.J. Johnson

“Trixie” (The Great Kai & J.J. , Impulse!). Winding, Johnson, trombones; Bill Evans, piano; Tommy Williams, bass; Art Taylor, drums. Recorded in 1960.

BEFORE: That J.J.? Yeah, J.J. It’s an older recording. Is it Kai Winding? Is it J and Kai? Yeah. The ’60s. I can tell by the panning of it, it’s the ’60s.

J.J. was really important because of his insistence on precision. And Kai Winding developed a lot playing next to J.J. over the years. You hear early Kai Winding and he sounds rough. But playing next to somebody who insists on precision, it’s almost like the way Wynton plays-it has to affect you when you play. J.J., he’s really clear with his thinking. That’s really important as a soloist, to be as clear as possible with your thinking. He can be safe when you hear enough of his recordings, but again, everybody can’t do everything. This is much more safe than the Curtis we heard. But where J.J.’s like, “I know how to swim but I’m not sure what’s in these waters,” Curtis is like, “Man, hell with it-let’s find out what’s in the waters!”

[Impulse!] also put out a record called The Great Kai & J.J. Aha! Racial awareness of the times. The white guy’s gonna sell the records. I mean, come on, man. Kai Winding wouldn’t have said that. They got Kai Winding all in the front on the cover and J.J.’s all in the back. It’s just what it is. Sign of the times. Couple of the J.J. records, they would put white folks on the covers, like a white girl holding the trombone [J.J. Johnson’s Jazz Quintets, on Savoy]. We’ve always had to deal with the race thing. We’re always going to have to deal with that. It’s just a question of how do we deal with it.

I think this was probably recorded at Van Gelder’s too. Yeah, definitely Van Gelder’s. [Ed. note: He’s correct.] When was it from, like ’63 or ’64?

AFTER: OK, this is that record! I have it somewhere. The Great Kai & J.J.! I don’t think so, buddy. Yeah, here it is-Kai is in the front, J.J.’s in the back. And in the alphabet, J comes before K. It should have been J and Kai. Those doggone Marsalises, they’re always looking for any little thing. … The Great Kai & J.J. You gotta be kidding me. Nothing against Kai, but whatever. Come on, man. It’d be like The Great Chet Baker & Miles, you know?

8. Ron Carter

“Ten Strings” (Uptown Conversation, Embryo). Carter, basses, composer; Sam Brown, guitar. Recorded in 1969.

BEFORE: This is a modern bass kind of thing. I don’t like that particular sound, but there’s something to be said about it. With an electric sound, you could play faster in a certain kind of way better than you could with an acoustic sound. But, to me, [Scott LaFaro] was the one who did this. Bill Evans, knowing that he couldn’t possibly compete with Oscar Peterson and Wynton Kelly to create his own trio sound, I think he said, “We’re gonna go more to that European thing,” which is like the symphony orchestra, where you don’t have any string sound. You don’t have anything that would be kind of aggressive.

There’s another great record [featuring LaFaro], The Arrival of Victor Feldman. I saw the record cover when I was at Berklee. It’s like three white guys on a beach with loud colors and I was like, “Pshh, I gotta buy this record.” I love playing it for bass players ’cause only one, Delbert Felix, knew that it was Scott LaFaro. They’re not used to him playing that aggressively.

So Bill Evans was the guy who decided, “We’re gonna play the acoustic bass more like a guitar-no string sound, nothing aggressive.” And a lot of people have followed suit. Personally, I like, you know, you’re playing bass. It’s masculine. I don’t like that feminine kind of a bass sound.

AFTER: The bass direct is important for various reasons. This is not indicative of the classic bass direct sound. But for the type of mood that Ron Carter’s trying to set, I think this was good for that. … Ron Carter is such a master of the instrument he can pretty much do whatever he wants to do. He’s hittin’ some bass tone here. Ron Carter, man. And that’s ’69? Wow.

9. Baby Dodds Trio

“Buddy Bolden Blues” (Jazz a’ la Creole, Circle). Dodds, drums; Albert Nicholas, clarinet; Don Ewell, piano. Recorded in 1951.

BEFORE: This is clearly old. “I Thought I Heard Buddy Bolden Say,” right? I have to guess it could be Jelly Roll Morton on piano. The clarinet … I know that sound. It sounds like somebody who played with Frog Joseph on these Sidney Bechet records. That sounded like it’s from the ’40s or the ’30s.

AFTER: Albert Nicholas, yes! That’s the thing he played on the Sidney Bechet recording. What year was it?

1951. You quoted Baby Dodds in the liner notes for The Last Southern Gentlemen, in reference to his willingness to play softly when the vibe of a room required it.

Yeah, and it’s interesting because you can hear the sense of humor that Baby Dodds had. That’s what sticks out with me, the changes he’s making throughout the course of the song. It’s not at all like some of the jazz drummers you hear who play one particular way. But this has a lot of great variety to it in the way that he’s changing it up. I didn’t even miss the bass. But that’s that joy that comes with New Orleans music. Originally Published