A New Orleans Jazzman Gets the Marsalis Treatment

The work of the New Orleans drummer and composer James Black sounds as if it was written after the 1950’s, but that’s about as far as you can guess. Because Black was a drummer, he was particularly sensitive to rhythm-section clichés; some of his tunes used diabolical time-signature changes, but his melodies flowed through them in such a way that those changes didn’t trip up the listener.

Black died in 1988, but numerous musicians, most of them from New Orleans, have been keeping his music aloft. The pianist Ellis Marsalis, who played in a trio with Black in the early 1960’s, has been the most visible, and he performed in a five-day run of concerts that ended on Saturday, spotlighting Black’s music at Lincoln Center. (Thursday’s concert was filmed and shown on the PBS series ‘‘Live at Lincoln Center.’‘)

Mr. Marsalis was in an almost entirely New Orleans band: his son Wynton on trumpet, Victor Goines on tenor and soprano saxophone, Reginald Veal on bass and Herlin Riley on drums. (Walter Blanding Jr., a saxophonist bred in New York, was the odd man out.) Black was an intellectual cult hero as well as a famously wild character, and people from his home city take him very seriously; there may also be matters of rhythmic temperament in these songs that players like Mr. Veal and Mr. Riley can get to a little more efficiently.

Without substantially changing the music or spontaneously rearranging it, the band sailed through the music on Wednesday night, swinging deeply and playing hard.

As expected, the rhythm section was superb. The elder Mr. Marsalis radiated quiet magnetism: he engaged with the demands of the song just enough, then laid back in the groove, playing elegant strolling figures. Without coming on loudly, Mr. Riley set grooves and tempos with such spring that Mr. Veal seemed to surf on them. And Mr. Blanding played some brilliant, expressive solos in ‘‘Magnolia Triangle,’‘ ‘‘Monkey Puzzle’‘ and ‘‘Whistle-Stop.’‘ They echoed John Coltrane’s obsessive recastings of small groups of notes; they used devices of fingering and overblowing to step up the urgency.

Not every piece was midtempo to fast and rhythmically tricky. ‘‘A Love Song’‘ was a slow ballad; in it, Wynton Marsalis took a long muted-trumpet solo, sustaining the quiet intensity for a remarkably long time.

by Ben Ratliff
Source: The New York Times

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