Delfeayo Marsalis Is A Merchant Of Joy

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“We don’t travel as much as we’d like yet,” Delfeayo Marsalis said. “But the guys in the band are committed to what we’re doing, and it’s taken a while for the concept to evolve.”

(Photo: Erika Goldring)

It’s not hard to pinpoint why Delfeayo Marsalis’ New Orleans-based Uptown Jazz Orchestra’s recent release, Jazz Party, and its 2016 predecessor, Make American Great Again—both on Troubadour Jass, and both consisting primarily of his compositions and arrangements—rank among the strongest big band discs of the past 10 years.

One attribute is a percolating rhythmic palette—relentless funk and gospel grooves, ebullient second-line syncopations, Afro-Caribbean-flavored street beats, undulating old-school press rolls, the distinctive flow of nouveau swing. Then there’s the breathe-as-one synchronicity of the woodwind and brass sections honed during more than a decade of Wednesday gigs at the eminent New Orleans nightclub Snug Harbor.

For a sense of the UJO sound, think of the dance-first sensibility of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band crossed with Count Basie’s early riff bands and post-1952 “New Testament” orchestras. Then imagine that aesthetic being applied, at times, to rambunctious soli sections articulating voicings and harmonic colors in the sophisticated dialects of Ellington, Mingus, Coltrane and Kenny Kirkland. The prevailing attitude is serious-as-your-life swing-modernism à la Art Blakey, who hired Marsalis briefly in 1987, and Elvin Jones, a steady employer from 1993 through 2002.

There’s also the sonic individualism of UJO’s personnel. That quality applies not least to the trombonists, among them New Orleans veteran Terrance “Hollywood” Taplin, and Marsalis, who organizes his lovely melodic lines with architectural clarity, delivering them with a vibrato that sustains a pure, voice-like tone at all tempos and registers. Baritone saxophonist (and Dirty Dozen co-founder) Roger Lewis, whose unfettered roar channels Harry Carney crossed with Hamiet Bluiett, imparts to his section a rambunctious precision evocative of the World Saxophone Quartet. Contrasting youngblood altoists Khari Allen Lee (Jackie McLean meets Eric Dolphy) and Amari Ansari (Hank Crawford meets Maceo Parker) engage in ongoing conversation, while tenor saxophone veteran Roderick Paulin embodies New Orleans swagger in delivery and presentation.

So does trumpeter Dr. Brice Miller, counterstated by section-mate Andrew Baham, who upholds Crescent City standards of soloistic derring-do. Fiftyish bassist David Pulphus’ phat, lithe tone interlocks with thirtyish drummer Joe Dyson—best known for propelling the bands of New Orleans stars Donald Harrison, Nicholas Payton and Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah—who references, in his own argot, an encyclopedic beat lexicon encompassing Baby Dodds and Ed Blackwell, Idris Muhammad and Zigaboo Modaliste, James Black and Herlin Riley, and an array of 21st century approaches.

It’s difficult to take a big band on the road, and UJO’s profile barely registers outside the Crescent City. Intent on rectifying that situation, Marsalis brought the large ensemble to New York in January in conjunction with the 2020 Association of Performing Arts Professionals conference. A cohort of presenters, bookers and assorted music pros were present at UJO’s opening engagement on Jan. 10, in the cozy confines of Stage 2 of Rockwood Music Hall on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.

At 8:30 p.m. sharp, Marsalis—decked out in an indigo suit speckled with full-moon polka dots, complemented by gleaming white shoes—led a procession of his 14 male instrumentalists onto the dance floor, playing Taplin’s strutting arrangement of The Soul Rebels’ “Let Your Mind Be Free” as they configured in a semi-circle before the bandstand. Overcoming dicey acoustics and its ad hoc positioning, UJO launched a kinetic set consisting almost entirely of repertoire from Jazz Party, including “Irish Whiskey Blues,” a jump tune that evoked James Moody’s popular octet of the 1950s; “Dr. Hardgroove,” Marsalis’ tone parallel to the funky essence of the late Roy Hargrove; and the polyphonic, anthemic “Raid On The Mingus House Party,” which the leader described as an attempt “to answer the question of how many themes we could play simultaneously.”

Following the set, Marsalis spent the next hour mingling and selling CDs. Then he joined DownBeat down the block for a conversation at the Cheese Grill.

“We don’t travel as much as we’d like yet,” Marsalis said. “But the guys in the band are committed to what we’re doing, and it’s taken a while for the concept to evolve.” Although he hadn’t eaten, he declined to order a sandwich from the menu, and instead picked at a portion of french fries.

He continued: “I started the band for one reason—to play Duke Ellington’s Nutcracker Suite concert in 2009. I’d played Nutcracker the year before at a children’s concert with a reading band that rehearsed twice, and did a terrible job—the notes were played correctly, but the feeling was way off and it wasn’t resonating with the kids. The music was so uncompelling that it made me realize how musicians accept the idea of reading the music and playing without spirit and soul—and the soul of the music is what’s important.

“So, the following year, I pulled together musicians for the sole purpose of playing that music the way it was meant to sound. Probably half the band didn’t read great, so we rehearsed every week for three months. Mission accomplished. After that, some guys wanted to keep it going, so we started playing different clubs and settled in at Snug Harbor. The band went through several cycles before I found the right New Orleans musicians. Through them I realized the importance of the New Orleans legacy and how great that music is. Roger, the only other founding member, helped shape the direction of the band tremendously.

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November 2021
Joey DeFrancesco
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