Delfeayo Marsalis: The Last Southern Gentlemen

A fine line separates old school from old hat, and Delfeayo Marsalis’ The Last Southern Gentlemen dances that line from beginning to end. The album is styled as a throwback, its languid mood and program of time-worn chestnuts meant to conjure, as the trombonist states in his liner notes, an era “when men were gentlemen.” Unfortunately, the result, despite some moments of inspiration, has an antiquated feel that warrants only a cursory listen.

The musicianship is not at issue, with the quartet members all contributing strong work. Marsalis’ rounded tone exudes wistful emotion on “Nancy (With the Laughing Face),” and his muted wah-wah effects grant the band’s take on the Sesame Street theme a wonky playfulness. Bassist John Clayton weaves pensive phrases on “I’m Confessin’,” and drummer Marvin “Smitty” Smith breaks out the bongos to give “But Beautiful” a Latin-tinged essence. Pianist Ellis Marsalis’ minor-keyed harmonics lend tension to Delfeayo’s composition “The Secret Love Affair,” and when the trombonist lays out on “If I Were a Bell,” the senior Marsalis rises to the occasion with a fast-paced take on Frank Loesser’s melody.

But so intent is Marsalis on honoring his forebears that any sense of invention or idiosyncrasy is stifled. With hundreds of versions of these tunes in circulation, none of the renditions on The Last Southern Gentlemen make a convincing argument for their necessity, a problem exacerbated by the fact that many tracks run at least a minute longer than such standard readings need to. “Speak Low,” for example, offers Smith’s vigorous rhythms and a sprightly solo from Ellis, but its nearly eight-minute length tests a listener’s patience.

The Marsalises have sometimes been disparaged for championing tradition at the expense of progression. While these criticisms have often borne a whiff of sour grapes, the argument carries water this time around.