Although pianist Ellis Marsalis has garnered countless plaudits for his teaching at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts and as chair of the Jazz Studies department at the University of New Orleans he rarely gets critical notice in these parts for his pianism. For decades, he has shaped the lives of countless jazz musicians including trumpeters Terence Blanchard
. He has released several recordings on the CBS-Sony label, continues to record for his own label Elm Records and remains active as a teacher and performer.
On November 9, 2012, I made a point to attend one of his rare New York club appearances at The Blue Note. Having listened to some of his recent recordings, I expected a rewarding evening and was not disappointed. He appeared with his current quartet which included saxophonist Derek Douget
Marsalis's set included some of his own compositions, a few standards and some delightful patter reflecting his vast teaching experience and long associations with legendary composers and musicians. Most compelling of all in his performing were his introductory changes, which set a mood while somehow capturing the historical framework of the composition. He introduced "Emily" with intriguing changes and after, playing it, provided the audience with a humorous anecdote about the song's composer, Johnny Mandel
' hit "Yesterday," thereby historicizing an entire genre of composing styles. The tune featured outstanding improvisational work from Douget, as well as Marsalis' haunting single note phrasing. His harmonic influences clearly reflected the ideas of the legendary beboppers of his youth, and his relaxed indulgences in those wanderings were hypnotic and unique. Why more critical commentary on his recent performing has not come forth is truly a mystery.
Some Tin Pan Alley reverie ushered forth when Marsalis quoted "The Donkey Serenade," "Stranger In Paradise," and "Yessir, That's My Baby" in his performance of Eddie Haywood's "Canadian Sunset." He later informed the audience that "Lime House Blues" (which, of course, isn't a blues) got its title because publishers made more money from purchasers in those days if they included "blues" in the song's title.
It is unclear when Ellis Marsalis would perform in a Gotham club again anytime soon, but after this stint, his presence should be at the top of all booking lists.