(Most of) The Marsalis Family in Concert

There’s no generation gap in the musical taste of the Marsalis family of New Orleans. From the 55-year-old patriarch and pianist, Ellis Marsalis, down to the 13-year-old drummer Jason, the hard-bop of the late 1950’s and 60’s is the pinnacle of jazz, and they have led a revival of the style among young musicians.

The best-known family members, the 29-year-old trumpeter Wynton and the 30-year-old saxophonist Branford, have an international reputation for meticulous, probing compositions and improvisations. Their chosen idiom reaches from standards and be-bop tunes to the border of Ornette Coleman’s free jazz. And as usual at a Marsalis concert, the music sounded well rehearsed, with fine-tuned ensembles.

The family members rarely perform together now that Wynton and Branford Marsalis lead their own groups. So a concert on Wednesday night at Alice Tully Hall offered an unusual chance to hear Ellis, Wynton, Branford and (for the first time) Jason perform together, bolstered by Wynton Marsalis’s regular septet; missing from the family roster was Delfeayo Marsalis, a trombonist. The concert was a benefit for Graham-Windham (a private child-care agency), the Autism Society of America and the Immunohematology Research Foundation.

Wynton Marsalis, who was the host (sharing family lore) and unofficial band leader, was also the concert’s most incandescent soloist. Playing standards with family members and his own compositions with his band members, the trumpeter displayed the new level of mastery he has achieved within the last two years.

Where he once drew primarily on hard-bop trumpeters, he has now reached back through the entire jazz tradition, lately annexing the laughing tone and leisurely, sauntering style of traditional New Orleans jazz. And while he has always had superb technique and a determination to shape solos carefully, it used to be easy to hear him thinking out each phrase; now, the solos just sing out, the effort behind them concealed in the outpouring of ideas and emotion.

In a final unaccompanied chorus for trumpet in “The Very Thought of You,” his solo climbed and climbed, each note more vulnerable, then went into a free fall that had the audience holding its breath. Yet in “Cherokee,” accompanied only by Jason Marsalis on drums, he was jabbing and incisive, while his septet’s rendition of “The Majesty of the Blues” let him glower and ruminate.

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Branford Marsalis played in less varied ways, generally using a big creamy tone for running be-bop lines. And Ellis Marsalis revealed debts to the light touch and harmonic intricacies of Wynton Kelly, Red Garland and Bill Evans, often dividing his solos between single-note melodies and transparent block chording. Jason Marsalis knows all the rudiments of be-bop drumming, and his playing was crisply efficient. It’s simply too early to predict how far he’ll develop, but like his brothers he knows that tapering off a solo can be as striking as a big finish. Mr. Marsalis’s septet included Wes Anderson on alto saxophone, Todd Williams on tenor saxophone, Wycliffe Gordon on trombone, Reginald Veal on bass and Herlin Riley on drums, all worthy players who showed that hard-bop doesn’t run just in one family.

by John Pareles
Source: The New York Times

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