Delfeayo Marsalis – Sweet Thunder (2011)

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For all of the many wonders of Duke Ellington’s Such Sweet Thunder, the 1957 ode to the writings of William Shakespeare left plenty of room to tinker. Many of the compositions, which explored literary familiars from Othello to Hamlet, were but brief bursts of sound. That opens the door for an interesting re-imagining of the work by New Orleans-born Delfeayo Marsalis.

And Sweet Thunder: Duke and Shak is just that, a re-imagining — not a retelling. Marsalis has orchestrated the pieces for an octet, included additional exposition, and in some places composed entirely new segments.

For instance, “Sonnet to Hank Cing,” once a mere 1.24 minutes long, circles out from the song’s initial major-minor contrast with Delfeayo Marsalis, then tenorist Mark Shim, altoist Mark Gross and baritonist Jason Marshall each taking 10-bar blues-based turns. “Sonnet in Search of a Moor” — almost four times longer than the Duke’s original — expands what was once a glimpse into the complex character of Othello into a devastatingly dramatic portrait. “Star-Crossed Lovers,” featuring Mulgrew Miller on piano, modulates brilliantly to suggest the differences between Romeo and Juliet. “Up and Down” and “Lady Mac” retain much the same structure, but with saxophones — first Victor Goines, then Gross — now in the spot once inhabited by Clark Terry. Similarly, Goines is featured on “Madness in the Great Ones,” once a trumpet feature.

As the project moved toward completion, Marsalis changed the playing order, as well. For instance, “Sonnet for Caesar” originally followed the album-opening “Such Sweet Thunder” on Ellington’s recording. This dark and sinuous take, now featuring Branford Marsalis on the soprano, moves back to second from the last — where its frenetic Middle Eastern mystery has far greater impact.

Delfeayo Marsalis, it seems, has long been fascinated with Sweet Thunder: Duke and Shak. He wrote his college thesis on the collaborative suite from Ellington and co-writer Billy Strayhorn, and has been working on this project for years. Yet living with it, rather than creating stasis, opened up new musical vistas for the talented trombone-playing producer.

Marsalis further advances the piece by incorporating the subsequent musical ideas that grew out of the Ellington ethos. “Half the Fun” hasa funky grit, with a Branford solo that connects with his history in Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers; Strayhorn’s “Up and Down” now swings with an angular be-bop; Sweet Thunder: Duke and Shak closes with “Circle of Fourth,” an engaging homage to Shakespeare’s brilliant versatility that changes tempo after each restatement of the melody, recalling the free-form style of John Coltrane or Ornette Coleman.

Listen closely enough to this fine wrought effort, and you’ll hear musical accents from his hometown, too: Delfeayo Marsalis adds an African rhythm, then a vocal-style muted trombone to “Sonnet for Sister Kate.” Trumpeter Tiger Okoshi and saxophonist Mark Gross recall the French Quarter’s side-street tap dancers, all open-hearted guile and soft-shoe joy, during “The Telecasters.”

Sweet Thunder: Duke and Shak, in the end, is the opposite of what we’ve come to expect from those who (rightly, if uninterestingly) still diefy Duke: stale repertory mimickry. Marsalis builds up from a familiar foundation of Ellingtonia — some time-honored templates, others just jumping-off points — and ends up with his own construction.

In this way, Delfeayo Marsalis’ new recording, and this is its profound strength, rediscovers Duke Ellington. Not just rediscovers him, reanimates him — as a living breathing thing, a collaborative voice. I loved it for that.

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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