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Ellis Marsalis makes a case for his mastery of jazz
by Norman Weinstein
Having heard Marsalis at Snug Harbor a few years ago, I can attest that hearing him live in his hometown is hearing him at his zenith. His studio releases on the Blue Note and Columbia labels are restrained affairs, offering the palest hint of his taste and improvisatory powers. Until now, his most successful disc was Piano in E/Solo Piano (Rounder), a live concert marking a farewell from New Orleans for employment elsewhere. Covers of tunes by Bud Powell, Fats Waller, Horace Silver, and John Lewis, representing key points on his musical compass, provided captivating moments. He took the blues within their music in stride - excuse the pun - with the high point being an aching reading of Lewis's "Django."
Interpreting the blues - freshly rethinking the dynamics of stride, swing, bop - is at the center of Marsalis's art. He's a moving composer of original tunes, and all his music reflects a deep intellectual awareness of jazz piano masters like Nat King Cole, Teddy Wilson, and Oscar Peterson. Like them, he swings with a light touch and possesses a nimble sense of dance rhythm.
All right, you say, if Ellis is so major, why hasn't he been more recognized? That has to do with the pianist's self-effacing manner. His album of duets with Wynton, Standard Time: Volume 3 (Columbia), finds him playing down his role so as to maximize Wynton's solo space. Even the last album released solely under his name on Columbia, Whistle Stop, occasionally sounds like a Branford Marsalis album. Which is why this year's Joe Cool's Blues (also Columbia) seemed like a useful resolution: 40 minutes of Wynton and band, 20 of Ellis and band, and nary the twain meet (except on the CD photo and credits). Trouble is, it's the most embarrassingly weak recording in either man's catalogue. United by a lightweight concept - father and son both like the Peanuts comic strip and the Vince Guaraldi soundtrack for the Peanuts TV specials - Wynton regales us with "original" tunes for Peanuts ("original" means recycled neo-Ellingtonian harmonies heard on the last few albums); meanwhile Ellis works variations on themes by Guaraldi (on the level of a future concept album where Sonny Rollins plays Kenny G?). Although Stanley Crouch, apparently the official hagiographer of the Marsalis family, credits Ellis with "showing us how cartoons can be turned into music," the opposite is sadly true.
A Night at Snug Harbor, New Orleans is a different story. Ellis Marsalis, with no family members in sight, finds himself in the fine company of some hot players. Three saxes, together and in various combinations, work exceedingly well. Donald Harrison, a former student of Marsalis, has never sounded so well-focused on record. Tony Dagradi, whose playing with Carla Bley was consistently inspired, shines, as does Rick Margitza (whose new Hands of Time, on Challenge, deserves appreciative attention). Nicholas Peyton on trumpet sounds young but clever; bassist Bill Huntington and drummer David Lee Jr. sound as if they'd been around and swinging since jazz began. Art Blakey sits in on one tune. This album was recorded in 1989 - hard to believe it went unreleased in this country till now.
Not only did Marsalis find himself with a great team of musicians, but they let him seize the spotlight often. Listen to his affectionate mutation of phrases from Monk's tunes on "Some Monk Funk." Heed his brilliant composing skills on "After," a moody parallel to Coltrane's "Alabama." Get into the uplifting, nearly gospel feel of "Nothin' But the Blues." On "The Very Thought of You," everyone leaves the stage, permitting Marsalis to work his artistry alone. You've never heard such depth of quiet at a jazz club in your life. And rarely will you hear an old jazz standard played with greater invention. You can follow the pianist's line of thinking as he constructs a solo with no ego, divine fire, without a note wasted.
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