RIYL: John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, Harry Connick Jr.
The first family of New Orleans jazz gathered for a special concert last year at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., and thank goodness they recorded it for release. There is far too little collaboration in this clan – patriarch Ellis on piano, Wynton on trumpet, Branford on sax, Delfeayo on trombone and youngest brother Jason on drums. They’re all world-renowned musicians and hearing them together is something special. This CD also makes a great gift for any jazz fan – it’s a historic gathering of the Marsalis clan, including stories and anecdotes about growing up in New Orleans. The proceeds also go to educational programming at the Ellis Marsalis Center for Music, “the heart of the New Orleans Habitat Musicians’ Village.” The project was conceived in 2005 by Branford Marsalis and Harry Connick, Jr. (who also guests in this performance) in partnership with New Orleans Habitat for Humanity following Hurricane Katrina.
The band opens with Charlie Parker’s “Donna Lee,” featuring an up-tempo walking bass line from the bassist Eric Revis, some dynamic whistling melodies from Jason and a great piano solo from Ellis.
Wynton and Branford both speak afterward about growing up, with Branford noting how Ellis’ breakthrough song “Monkey Puzzle” (written by James Black) was almost like a cartoon theme song to the kids. The classic song receives an eight-minute treatment, with great solos all around and some stellar work by Jason on the vibes.
A pair of Ellis-penned tunes follow. “After” is an elegant solo piano song, and then “Syndrome,” an old school piano-based tune that brings in the rest of the band with some smooth unison horn lines. Harry Connick Jr., then joins the ensemble for “Sweet Georgia Brown,” where sparks fly on sensational dueling pianos between Connick and Ellis. Another peak occurs with a reading of Thelonious Monk’s “Teo,” which oozes the jazzy jazz that comes from such great horn players. There’s also another superb piano solo, followed by a succession of stylish horn solos that are like a jazz playbook.
Ellis Marsalis III then delivers a poignant spoken word poem written just for the occasion to honor his father, “The Man and the Ocean.” A nearly 10-minute version of Jason’s “At the House in Da Pocket” follows and it’s a magic track, with the horns seeming to hold an animated conversation while the other instruments vamp out behind. The Marsalis family chemistry really starts flowing here and it’s only a shame that this track basically ends the set instead of setting the stage for more. But in classic New Orleans fashion, the group apparently exits through the audience playing a rousing version of the traditional song, “The 2nd Line.”
This entire performance will make you want to book travel to New Orleans at your nearest convenience. If you can’t make it in person, the next best thing may be streaming local radio station WWOZ, without a doubt one of the greatest and most diverse stations on the planet. (Marsalis Music 2010)