When Ellis Marsalis and his son Jason went into a New Orleans studio in mid-February 2020 to make a duo album for Newvelle Records, they had no inkling that it would be the elder man’s final recording. “In fact,” says the younger Marsalis, “we were talking about going back to record some more things, put some more tunes down, and we were looking forward to doing it.”
Alas, it was not to be. Ellis Marsalis Jr., the patriarch of jazz’s most famous family, passed away of complications from COVID-19 on April 1 at the age of 85. For All We Know, the session that the pianist and his vibraphonist son had made six weeks earlier, stands as his last musical testament.
“I miss him a lot,” says Jason, 43, who still lives in the same city where his father was born and died. “But I’m so grateful that we got to do this together.”
For All We Know is a profoundly meaningful record for the youngest Marsalis brother, even aside from it being his father’s swan song. It’s also the first album the two made as a duo—and indeed one of the few times they performed as one. “Historically, we hadn’t played a lot together,” Marsalis says. “It would just be here and there, maybe some gigs at the house. Very off-and-on.” When they did play together, Jason usually played drums, his other instrument.
That novel piano-vibes configuration was to some extent the lure of this project for both men. The album is part of Newvelle’s New Orleans Collection, a four-album series that the Paris-based label has commissioned from iconic Crescent City musicians for exclusive vinyl release. (The other albums will feature vocalist Irma Thomas, guitarist Little Freddie King, and pianist Jon Cleary.)
“They told Dad they wanted to record him, so of course the first thing he does is forward the email to me,” Marsalis chuckles. “‘Jason, look into this. Let me know what you think.’ And I thought about it, and I said, ‘Dad, you know what we should do is a duet album, vibes and piano. We haven’t done that.’” He said, ‘Sounds good.’ So I told the guys from Newvelle that’s what we wanted to do.”
The two-day session, he says, was very loose. “I had a list of tunes and it was like, ‘Let’s play this. Let’s play that.’ Just calling some tunes, based on things that he could play.” Most of the tunes he called were by Ellis, or pieces from the standard repertoire. But of course there were also some spontaneous creations.
“One of the things that my father would do is go to the piano and just start improvising whatever was in his mind at that moment,” Jason explains. “So there was a few tunes that he did that ended up being solo.” One of these, titled after the fact as “E’s Knowledge,” opens the album; a companion solo, “E’s Sound,” comes on its second side.
Perhaps even more special than the unique duo setting is the album’s one track for trio. “Discipline Meets the Family” features Jason Marsalis’ 15-year-old daughter Marley as a second pianist. It marks the only documented occasion where three generations of Marsalises have performed together. A continuation of an occasional series of drum-based pieces that Jason has produced called “disciplines,” it required some of the album’s heaviest lifting.
“I put down all these tracks,” he recalls. “These drum tracks, a vibraphone track, another track where I’m playing tambourine. And I brought Marley in, and I would just tell her, ‘Play this!’ ‘Play that!’ Then I told my father, ‘We’re just gonna have her play in F minor, and you can solo and play chords.’ It was fun to put together.”
Marsalis believes that working with Marley had special significance for his father as well, and not just because of the family connection. “He was really into hearing young people playing the music,” he says. “I remember just before he died, him talking to me about the vibes and saying, ‘Man, they got this cat now, Joel Ross! He’s ridiculous!’”
That passion for young musicians was fundamental in Ellis Marsalis’ life. A longtime educator, he held positions at Virginia Commonwealth University and the University of New Orleans, and spent a dozen years as an instructor at the famous New Orleans Center for Creative Arts (NOCCA)—where his students included Terence Blanchard, Donald Harrison, and Harry Connick Jr.
More broadly, he was an oracle for players of modern jazz in New Orleans, a figure of bebop authority like Von Freeman in Chicago or Barry Harris in Detroit. “He was the guy to go to,” Jason affirms. “And that’s why you have a lot of people who studied with him that ended up having a career in the music.”
The son hopes to carry on the father’s legacy in that sense: passing the music on, making sure its whole history is taught, understood and, most importantly, heard. However, he also intends to honor Ellis in a more personal way.
“One of my hobbies was keeping track of my father’s recordings,” Jason says. “There’s a bunch that haven’t been released yet, and that’s something I will be working on later on down the line.”