"The time is right, says Delfeayo Marsalis, third youngest of the renowned and prodigious jazz family from New Orleans, speaking with confidence. "There aren't that many bands out there playing like my band. ... It's my time.
Marsalis has been on the jazz scene for a long time. He may have more notoriety due to his very successful tenure as a record producer. But he's been out there playing the trombone in various aggregations including a notable tenure with drumming icon Elvin Jones. He's had his own band through the years, but it seemed to get lostsidetracked anywayin the various things Marsalis had going on.
What Marsalis refers to is that he wants to push forward as the leader of his own band now. At age 41, his playing, always good, has grown and matured as he has. His clear, precise attack and big tone has become a formidable voice on his instrument. As he's forging that sound, he is also attempting to forge a band with its own identifiable sound. The time has come for those two things, he feels.
Hand in hand with this effort is the release, in September, of his latest recording, Minions Dominion (Troubadour Jazz, 2006). It's a strong effort, in the mainstream, alive and inventive. The band playing the music isn't the one he's touring with, but the musicians are superb and the sound is hip. It's delivered with fire and passion by the likes of fiery alto saxophonist Donald Harrison, brother Branford on tenor, pianist extraordinaire Mulgrew Miller, and bassists Robert Hurst III, Edwin Livingston and Eric Revis. The drummer, and one of the keys to the feel and excitement of the recording, is the rhythm machine, Elvin Jones.
"About 10 years ago, there were many more bands playing in a style similar to my band. But today, some of the stuff that's out there, it makes you wonder what jazz is anymore, says Marsalis, sounding somewhat like his brother Wynton. "There's a lot of different things and from the European discipline. When people hear my band, they're going to hear music that's from the American tradition. Music that swings.
Ethnic, world music and other influencesare fine. Nothing wrong with variation and different things. But my band doesn't play like that. People still need to hear it. People still need to hear that swing.
Five of the seven compositions are by the trombonist, and swing it does. Right out of the gate with the opener "Brer Rabbit, the band kicks into to get people's heads nodding and feet tapping. It has almost a Basie feel, with leader taking the first solo with bold assurance and a strong fat tone. Donald Harrison is soulful and driving and Jones is his wonderful self, multi rhythms, strong, yet flexible with a looseness that is hard to explain. It doesn't matter. It's felt.
All perform well on the disk, inventive and creative, and there are great solos throughout by each of the featured players who are growing giants in their own right. And when it's time to slow down, Marsalis shows his soft side, putting forth "If You Only Knew with precise articulation and a round, rich ballad tone. Branford also shows his underrated creativity and feel for a melody, and Delfeayo returns with a muted 'bone statement. Sweet stuff.
Recorded in February 2003, it's his third solo CD and he's rightfully proud of it, especially with the inclusion of Jones. For the drummer, it was his second to last recording session, the final one being with his brother/pianist Hank Jones, a session that produced three discs (Autumn Leaves (441, 2003), Someday My Prince Will Come (Columbia, 2004) and Collaboration (441, 2005). A bonus track for the latter was recorded not long before Elvin died, according to 441 Records). Minions Dominions, in a way, is a tribute to Elvin.
"That's only fair, to go out with family, Marsalis says fondly. "But on my record, with the horns and stuff, you hear the whole breadth and depth of Elvin. There's more going on. Elvin plays with so much heart. I wanted people to hear the soul of the man, not just the music. He plays like the kind of person he was. People need to hear him. He's such an important part of history, especially musical history.
Marsalis played with Jones for about six years, running over the course of a ten-year span. It was also the first time Jones recorded with Branford or Donald Harrison. Marsalis says the reason for the delay in putting out the recording was that he was busy finishing up his master's degree in jazz performance at the University of Louisville between recording and this year's release. "I wanted to make sure it was right, he says. "I wanted it to right for Elvin, so he did not rush the process.
The trombonist was planning to have a video of the recording session posted on his website. "That will be important for students to see. Elvin was such a big part of music history. They can see the way he plays, the way he's all over it. But also see the spirit of the man and the joy that he plays with.
Branford is co-producer of the album, with Delfeayo.
"Recording with Branford is something else," says his sibling. "He just dominates sometimes, he's so confident. Like in one song, he was supposed to play a G-flat. He said he wanted to play G. I said, 'Well it's supposed to be G-flat.' He says. 'No, G,' and that was it, Delfeayo says with a chuckle. "But I like that. With my brothers, you will get the most honest opinion about what we think is best for the music. I could have vetoed it (the G), but then I heard it and said, 'Yeah, maybe that is a better note.' I appreciate that.
Marsalis is also proud of the fact that the band "doesn't sound like a bunch of guys that just went into a studio, for the sole purpose of recording. "I want my band to sound like a working group. And this does, even though we hadn't worked together that long. It sounds like we'd been playing for a long time, which is what I want.
Marsalis is taking that music on the road, but with a different touring group. Still, they are playing as much as they can. While the dates are infrequent through 2006, they are being scheduled into 2007, he says.
"The time's right for me to get out there, he says, admitting that he could have more notoriety as a player had he not spent time with the likes of Art Blakey, Abdullah Ibrahim, Jones, Slide Hampton and Max Roach. But waiting in the wings was worth it. "I learned so much with Elvin and it was so valuable and I was also leading my own band. If I hadn't gone with Elvin, I might have ten albums. But that's not the point. I didn't feel it was important to just be cranking out recordings. That's not the way it went. But now I'm going to be out there playing more.
In a mid-September concert in Lake George, NY, Marsalis played a strong set with Mark Shim on sax, Anthony Wonsey on piano, Delbert Felix on bass, Dirt Red on percussion and Ralph Peterson on drums (at times, brother Jason Marsalis plays drums in the band, depending on availability). The horns and piano provided outstanding solos as they swung through Marsalis' music, propelled by Peterson's busy, aggressive, crackling drums. When it came time to change the pace, Delfeayo warmed the crowd on a chilly outdoor evening with a poignant and pointed "What a Wonderful World. His band is capable of capturing many moods from sweet to explosive and it was reflected in a fine set of music. At one point, a young woman stepped on stage, dancing with obvious glee (and a pinch of eroticism).
We let her go, he explains later. "That's how this music makes people feel. It moves them. It feels good. It's the people's music.
Marsalis is ready to take it to them, joining the ranks with his brothers.
Born in New Orleans, where he still lives, Marsalis said a noted pianist in the Crescent City told him he was taking students to see his father, pianist Ellis Marsalis, perform in concert. He told Delfeayo, "After [Ellis] is done, there aren't any more like that in New Orleans.
"Man, I never thought of it that way, Marsalis says. "In New Orleans, if my band isn't playing, there's a void. There's no music like that down there right now.
It's right for Marsalis, who began studying trombone at age thirteen and attended the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts. While jazz was prominent in the family, he was also classically trained, encouraged by his parents to be well rounded. "That was very important in my development of the right sound. There are so many more stages of development in classical music, hundreds of years, as compared to jazz. He attended the Berklee College of Music, majoring in both performance and audio production, and his knack for organizing an highly developed sense of sound kept him in the producing ranks for a while.
The producing bug started much earlier than college.
While his first official credit was producing one of his father's records, Syndrome (Elm, 1985), he really had the interest and started fussing with sounds at an even younger age, perhaps sixth or seventh grade he recalls, because brother Wynton needed someone to make the audition tapes for his band. "I was around the house a lot, so I just started to record for them. I had the microphone. I learned by getting in and doing it with elementary equipment and an ability to listen and figure things out.
"I would always be listening to records and I'd say, 'Man, how did they get that sound?' And I would try to figure it out. Then one day I saw a picture in this book of Miles Davis in a large recording studio, and it stirred his analytical mind. "I said to Wynton, 'Man, you got to get yourself a bigger room.' And not long after, an old ABC studio was rediscovered and put to good use, helping people like Wynton and Branford get great sounding albums under Delfeayo's watchful eye ... and ear.
In the early 1980s Delfeayo produced albums for his brothers, as well as saxophonist Courtney Pine, pianist/vocalist Harry Connick Jr., pianist Marcus Roberts, Donald Harrison, trumpeter Terence Blanchard and many moreover 75 major label recordings in all. He also did a couple of movie scores for Spike Lee. Those credits include Do The Right Thing, Jungle Fever, and Mo Better Blues.
Marsalis says he always strived to get the acoustic sound, particularly with the low end of the bass, "so it doesn't sound rubbery. You can tell a big difference from the sound of records in the '70s and the '80s, typified by the records he did Wynton and Branford, "which were among the most listened to during that time. As a result, he feels that sound, which disappeared for a time, is heard more often on albums this decade because of the influence of those older records. "Maybe not directly, he says. "It's like how Miles influences other musicians. ... People heard the sound, and maybe didn't consciously say 'I'm going to get that' but they went that way. A lot of the sound I hear now can be traced to that. That makes me feel good.
As a trombone player, Marsalis says he listened to just about every major player from the beginning of jazz, and appreciates something about all the greats. The sound of Curtis Fuller. The way Steve Turre plays intervals. Tommy Dorsey for his melodic sense. The enthusiasm of Wycliffe Gordon. The virtuosity of J.J. Johnson. So many, including Conrad Herwig, Tyree Glen, Vic Dickenson and Al Grey.
But the main guy for me is Jack Teagarden. He was great. He could play so fast and so many things if you go back and listen to him. His own recordings don't do him justice. You have to listen to him on things with Louis Armstrong and others. His own recordings aren't that strong. They weren't arranged properly. But he's probably my main guy.
He adds, "Some of these guys in their 60s and 70s couldn't really play that much anymore, but go back and listen to the records when they were young and they play so fast and so much music. It's incredible, man.
Delfeayo's choice of the trombone as his instrument was in part to be different from his brothers, but not the main factor. He started out playing bass and drums because his brothers were horn players, but "the bass hurt my fingers, he says with a laugh, and he gravitated to the trombone because it was perhaps gravitating toward him.
I think that the instrument fits your personality. Sometimes you can tell what instrument a guy plays just by looking at him and talking to him. For him, the trombone touches on his ability to organize.
I think the instruments mirrors the type of personalities we have in the family. When you think of the trumpet, you never think of a trumpet player as a sideman. They are the ones out there leading the way. He's like the quarterback of the band. And that's just how Wynton is. And then the saxophone reeds are more supportive and Branford, he's just, to me, the ultimate sideman. Any situation you put him in, he's going to know how to make it sound good. The trombone connects and keeps things together. That's kind of my role. I've always been an organizer.
So organize he does. But there won't be as much as a producer in the immediate future. "I don't do that as much any more. I still do it at certain times. It's always nice to help somebody else sound good, but he's leaning more toward playing, having a working band, and composing, both for the band and for his education projects with the Uptown Music Theatre, which he founded in 1997 in New Orleans to provide eighth-to-twelfth graders with musical theater training. There, the youths have performed his original musicals Kidstown, The Pirate's Conspirate, Jaz and Jazmine Meet the Jazz Band, A New Tale of the Old West and Carol, Carol, Caroling. Community unity is the common thread, he says.
Working with that group and his group, and blowing that horn will be priorities for Delfeayo Marsalis going forward. His growing musical voice, and focused vision, will be a thing to enjoy.
Delfeayo Marsalis, Minions Dominion (Troubadour Jass, 2006)
Wycliffe Gordon, Standards Only (Nagel Heyer, 2006)
Marsalis Family, A Jazz Celebration (Marsalis Music, 2003)
Los Hombres Caliente, Vol. 3: New Congo Square (Basin Street, 2001)
Irvin Mayfield Sextet, Live at the Blue Note (Half Note, 1999)
Buckshot LeFonque & Branford Marsalis, Music Evolution (Columbia, 1997)
Delfeayo Marsalis, Musashi (Evidence, 1996)
Elvin Jones, It Don't Mean a Thing Enja, 1993)
Delfeayo Marsalis, Pontius Pilate's Decision (Novus, 1992)
Branford Marsalis, I Heard You Twice the First Time (Columbia, 1992)
Al Grey, Fab (Capri, 1990)
Courtesy of Delfeayo Marsalis