What makes New Orleans not only a musician’s town but also a place that produces musical families? Take the Marsalis family. There’s Wynton, one of jazz’s more tireless promoters. Then you have Branford, Delfeayo and Jason. Plus, don’t forget the man who started it all, Ellis.
What is surprising about this multi-gifted family is how they never grew up playing together à la the Von Trapps, the Osmonds or Hanson. Ellis was aware of the gimmicky nature of children dressed in uniformed costumes trying to please a taskmaster of a father. He had no intention of pushing his kids to follow his tradition. If Ellis’ sons wanted to learn jazz, he would show them how, but they would have to discover what it meant to them on their own.
That’s what Ellis did most of his life, first teaching music in high school before moving on to New Orleans University. In fact, The Marsalis Family: A Jazz Celebration is a concert that only came to fruition because Ellis was retiring from the University’s jazz department. Only at the end of a distinguished career would his sons come to play together for the very first time.
At this point the Marsalis boys had all found their path in the music industry: Wynton on trumpet as well as director of the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra; Branford on saxophone playing with Sting and as the bandleader for the Tonight Show; Delfeayo on trombone working as a musical producer; and Jason on drums and vibraphone and co-founder of one hopping group, Los Hombres Calientes.
The only non-Marsalis on the stage that night was one of Ellis’ students, Roland Guerin on bass. And with Ellis on piano, the group played a little of everything: You have the standard, Oscar and Hammerstein’s “The Surrey with the Fringe on Top”; the traditional, “St. James’ Infirmary”; the sibling rivalry, Wynton and Branford going toe-to-toe in “Cain and Abel”; and the crowd pleaser, Louis Armstrong’s, “Struttin with Some Barbecue.”
Then you have three songs from the man of the hour. My favorite is “After.” I’ve listened to it so many times it now evokes a certain mood. Part calm, part wistful, part longing, if this album is about family, then this song is about a man, who after a long, hard day, has a few moments alone to reflect, to be thankful and to be relieved that Cain and Abel finally put down their instruments and went off to bed.