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Delfeayo Marsalis brings new thunder to Snug Harbor

Written by  Nick Garrison
Finely dressed in a form fitted suit, burgundy tie, black polished shoes, and trombone in hand, Delfeayo Marsalis took command of the stage at Snug Harbor in a special occasion jam session. Bandleader, composer, and producer, this New Orleans native and his band perform fresh arrangements of the classic Duke Ellington/Billy Strayhorn jazz suite, Such Sweet Thunder. The original suite, commissioned for the Shakespeare Society in 1957, is comprised of character vignettes, a musical representation of the contrasting personalities in William Shakespeare's plays.
 
“I gave Ellington kind of a modern day makeover,” Marsalis said about his most recent album, a 2011 re-interpretation entitled Sweet Thunder. Thanks to the Smithsonian Institute, Marsalis attained copies of the original scores, and from there, he was able to add enough spices to create something uniquely his own. The band has been scaled down from the original fourteen members, the grooves dug deeper, and the musical integrity revived.
Delfeayo Marsalis brings new thunder to Snug Harbor | IntheNOLA.com
“The idea is to present this great music in a different light.” Marsalis aims to write music with historical significance. He believes, "When you go to check out Beethoven or Mozart, the quality of the art affects you emotionally and spiritually. It puts you in another kind of place and there is nothing else that can do that. Ellington’s music has so much quality. That's why it affects people.”
 
The quality of this neo-Ellington music is no less, consisting of bumping solos, swinging riffs, and a refined understanding of the blues. Marsalis stomped off the first tune of the record, initiating a unison melody from the octet with the swagger of the trombone and trumpet partnered by a wailing three-man sax section. The rhythm section simmered and the tune took its time developing. But stretching out from the slumber of sustained sounds, the tenor sax charged into a solo, bending the notes like taffy and blowing the house down with a silky, bold tone. Cheers from the band of “C’mon!” and “Alright now!” aided in the intensifying solo. Meanwhile, Marsalis introduced short background lines and the rest of the band caught on. The communication on stage was captivating.
Delfeayo Marsalis brings new thunder to Snug Harbor | IntheNOLA.com
When it came time for a trombone solo, Marsalis’s buttery tone and ease of production across all ranges cut through. He demonstrated his prowess with beautifully simple rhythms that evolved throughout the solo, a huge spectrum of dynamics and sensitivity, not to mention flashy flips, turns, and the traditional gritty flutter-tongue glisses trombone players know so well. Each member displayed a fierce virtuosity, crafting their solos over an extended period of time. With respect to the overarching structure of their ideas, the improvisation was progressive and well paced.
 
The performance offered not only entertainment, but also an element of education in the explanation of each piece. Among the many colors and styles produced throughout the show, the band unleashed a tune forged from the structure of a sonnet. Marsalis gave a quick poetry lesson to the audience, explaining how Ellington used fourteen lines and ten different notes to get the effect of a sonnet, using sound as his medium. Based on Shakespeare's character, King Henry the Fifth, the piece is entitled Sonnet to Hank Cinq. It alternated between some blistering fast drum features and a lazy, laid back swing feel. The melodic minor passages gave this tune a mysterious Arabic glow, and the rush of the tempo changes kept the listener engaged. Queen Shiva, a sultry gait with lush piano chords underneath, added some sex appeal to the already eclectic mix of music. The band also performed other songs common to New Orleans (not included on the recent album) such as Professor Long Hair's Go to the Mardi Gras, Duke Ellington's It Don't Mean a Thing if it Ain't Got that Swing, and a trombone solo feature for Marsalis, Gene de Paul's heart-melting ballad, You Don't Know What Love Is.
Delfeayo Marsalis brings new thunder to Snug Harbor | IntheNOLA.com
Whether it was the musicians dancing on stage, or the audience hollering in the crowd, this music’s energy was infectious with everyone anticipating a second set. At the same time, the venue was warm and inviting, just like Marsalis’ conversations with the audience.
 
“Jazz has always been music of the people, for the people. It's never been something that you could just tie down," Marsalis said about the direction of his music. “If you really love something, do your best to promote it and make sure that it stays around,” he advised
 
Marsalis and his Sweet Thunder band are keeping the music alive, and putting their twist on these classic grooves allowing us to experience this modern edition of a milestone in jazz.
Last modified on Friday, 08 February 2013
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