Remembering the Brilliant, Underrated Ellis Marsalis
Since the United States is such a relatively young country, there haven’t been a lot of musical legacies here, at least by comparison to places like Mali or parts of India and Pakistan where musical families go back for centuries. There’s a strong case that the Marsalis family of New Orleans are the greatest American musical legacy. Sadly, we lost their patriarch, pianist Ellis Marsalis, last month.
His sons – trumpeter Wynton, saxophonist Branford, vibraphonist Jason and trombonist Delfeayo – may be better known, but Ellis Marsalis was a brilliantly distinctive and scarily purposeful player, an example to be emulated. He was 79 when he and Delfeayo made their only full-length record together, The Last Southern Gentlemen, in 2014. It’s deep music, mostly ballads, still up at Soundcloud.
The senior Marsalis plays with a delightfully offbeat, tersely incisive, eminently spacious touch. On the bouncy take of Autumn Leaves, that counterintuitive sense of rhythm is just plain irresistible: if you play an instrument, give this a listen and then put that at the top of your to-do lists, Ellis Marsalis giving you useful advice without opening his mouth.
Let the nocturnal father/son camaraderie of She’s Funny That Way waft through you, as bassist John Clayton and drummer Marvin “Smitty” Smith do here. There are places where the family frontline diverge, especially on the more upbeat numbers. Delfeayo’s uncanny touch matches his dad, especially on a slow, summery take of I’m Confessin. Phantasmagoria might not be the first thing you might think of getting from their bolero version of The Man With 2 Left Feet….but guess again. Everything on the recod seems to be about thinking outside the box, a legacy that the whole family has embraced. Since this album, Delfeayo has gone on to be arguably the family’s most articulate antifascist crusader. May other generations sustain that.