Was Delfeayo Marsalis undertaking a task too challenging when he recorded music from one of Duke Ellington's most beloved albums to make Sweet Thunder? Gunther Schuller offers a doctrine that seems to suggest this has been so. Apparently the size and composition of the ensemble lead to this mishap. Would it have been remiss, to replicate the tonal colors that Ellington brought forth when he recorded Such Sweet Thunder (Columbia, 1957)his jazz musical interpretation/relocation of the iambic pentameter of William Shakespeare's mighty dramatics from some of his greatest plays, including the celebrated monologueswithout the deep colorings of Harry Carney's baritone, the woody shades of Russell Procope's or Jimmy Hamilton's clarinets? Or is all lost without the lovelorn splendor of Johnny Hodges' alto, playing Juliet to Paul Gonsalves' tenor, recreating the stricken descent of Romeo?
So the question is: Does Delfeayo Marsalis' album hit or miss the mark? The truth is: Marsalis has created a highly literate canon that not only pays reverent homage to Ellington's interpretation of Shakespeare's dramaturgy, but does so in a fresh and authentic manner. This does not suggest that the eminent spirits of past musicians are not recalled and missed. However, Shakespeare is dramatic adventure and, while being art of the highest order, here Marsalis turns it into another timeless album, with nuanced shades and colors bringing to life characters and emotions that are just as nuanced. If anything may be gained from Marsalis' recreation of the marriage of Elizabethan drama and Ellingtonian jazz, it is that the historic event of 1957 at the Shakespearean Festival in Stratford, Ontario can be recast in a contemporary setting, with a renewed sense of adventure.
On the aching colors of "Star-Crossed Lovers," alto saxophonist Mark Gross weeps and wails as Juliet, it's almost possible to see the tears running down the cheek of Marsalis' Romeowho, in turn, is deeply tinged with indigo and eventually crimson. Marsalis' Othello is defiant and heroic to the sly glissando of Victor Goines' Iago in "Sonnet in Search of a Moor"or, as the shrill antics of his soprano saxophone conjure up the charming skittishness of Puck. Then there is David Pulpus' bubbling and boiling, as Tiger Okoshi's trumpet, Mulgrew Miller's piano and Mark Gross' alto saxophone summon the spirits via Graymalkin and her cackling friends in Macbeth. Branford Marsalis' brilliantly forlorn soprano saxophone essays into the mighty conquests of Julius Caesar, as it all comes to naught in the grim double stops of Pulpus' bass, signaling the grim fall of the celebrated emperor with its return to the wild flaying of Marsalis' soprano, while Victor "Red" Atkins' piano signals the bloody end.
The unfolding of Sweet Thunder is one the Bard would surely enjoyas would Ellington, for all its sense of surprise, as elastic, idiomatic jazz intertwines with the iambic adventure of the very best Shakespearean interpretations.
Such Sweet Thunder; Sonnet for Sister Kate; Sonnet to Hank Cinq; Half the Fun; Up & Down, Up & Down; Madness in Great Ones; Star-Crossed Lovers; Sonnet in Search of A Moor; The Telecasters; Sonnet for Caesar; Lady Mac; Circle of Fourths.
Delfeayo Marsalis: trombone; Branford Marsalis: soprano saxophone; Jason Marsalis: drums (2, 6, 8-10, 12); Winard Harper: drums (1, 3-5, 7, 11); Tiger Okoshi: trumpet (1, 3, 5, 6, 10,11); Mark Gross: alto saxophone, tenor saxophone; Victor Goines: soprano saxophone (2, 5, 6, 8, 11,); Mark Shim: tenor saxophone (3,12); Jason Marshal: baritone saxophone; Mulgrew Miller: piano (1, 7, 9); Victor "Red" Atkins: piano (3-6, 8, 11, 12); Reginal Veal: bass (1); David Pulphus: bass (3, 4, 7, 9, 10); Charnett Moffet: bass (5, 6, 8, 11, 12).