Delfeayo Marsalis, recipient of the 2011 NEA Jazz Masters Award, stepped out with a rare recording as a leader this year — just his second since the 1990s. Sweet Thunder: Duke and Shak, a canny reworking of Duke Ellington’s 1957 suite Such Sweet Thunder on Troubadour Jazz, led to a 36-date theatrical jazz production that ran through May.
Still, he’s more associated with his work as record producer. It is in that capacity that Delfeayo Marsalis has helped shape his family’s sound, and that of their sidemen — from Wynton Marsalis’ 1986 Live at Blues Alley and 1990 “Standard Time Vol. 3” with father Ellis to Marcus Roberts’ 1990 Alone With Three Giants, from Kenny Kirkland’s 1991 self-titled solo debut and Jeff “Tain” Watts’ 1999 “Citizen Tain” to Branford Marsalis’ 1987 Random Abstract. Since then, he’s also worked with Elvin Jones, Terence Blanchard, Ruth Brown, Irvin Mayfield, Donald Harrison, the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Harry Connick Jr. and the Mingus Dynasty, among many others.
In the latest SER Sitdown, Delfeayo Marsalis talks about working with his brothers, even while he established his own musical philosophy away from them. He says he’s never felt bound by the legacy, but rather feels invigorated by it as a jumping off point — something that plays out brilliantly on Sweet Thunder …
Nick DeRiso: Sweet Thunder doesn’t just pay homage to Duke Ellington’s jazz rethinking of Shakespeare; it actually builds outward from the original compositions. Were you worried about a backlash?
Delfeayo Marsalis: Not at all. A lot of times people think that my family has one philosophy. With Wynton, it’s more repertory, recreating the music as it was in its original form. That’s not my take on it at all. I haven’t really done much that was my own original concept. That was the challenge; it took a little while. I was originally signed (in the early 1990s) with RCA, but then I had a big dispute about who I would use on my records. As part of the deal to get out of that particular recording contract, it prevented me from recording for five or six years. Then, the industry had a big downturn during that period of time. That slowed down my productivity.
DeRiso: I hear a lot of J.J. Johnson in your style of play, but then you also were impacted by Slide Hampton and Curtis Fuller. How does the trombone tradition inform what you do today?
Marsalis: Those guys invented the vocabulary. It’s a similar task, to use that vocabulary but not to imitate them exactly. I think that’s where the modern elements come in, a certain rhythmic concept that I try to incorporate. There are different elements that you take from different places. For example, in addition to being influenced by the swing trombonists like Al Grey, I’ve also been influenced by Tommy Dorsey and Bill Watrous. The big difference there is they play up an octave or so from where I play. There is a smoothness that those guys have. I try to play in a lower register, but with that same smoothness.
DeRiso: Renaissance, the 1986 release you produced for brother Branford Marsalis, was the first to decry the use of the dreaded bass direct. Describe how that changed the way acoustic jazz was recorded.
Marsalis: When we put that on the liner notes to Renaissance, it was really just a joke. We didn’t take it that seriously, but it took on a life of its own. When Branford joined Sting’s band, he did an article in “Downbeat” referencing me developing a technique to recreate more of the wood sound on the bass. ‘The bass direct is here to stay,’ a guy wrote in a letter. He took offense to that. So we put it in the liner notes; we were just being silly. Then the next thing you know, bass players took that as a moniker. So, after that, we kept it going. I think it improved everybody. Eventually, there was push to make it sound more acoustic after that. The fate of the bass direct was sealed on (Branford’s 1998 release) Trio Jeepy. We used Milt Hinton on that record. When they heard that bass, they said: ‘Lord, have mercy.’ That’s the great thing about jazz, its ability to blend the tradition. Milt Hinton represented all of the tradition with the younger players.
DeRiso: Harry Connick Jr. has since become known as a Sinatra-style entertainer, but you were there for his debut as a leader, a record that focused on his underrated piano style. Do you think he could have been a great straight ahead player?
Marsalis: In fact, I pretty much lost the gig working for him because I was very vocal about him dealing with his piano chops, initially. His new management came in and said: ‘You’re gone.’ It ended up being the best call for him, no question. He’s one of the great talents that we have on the instrument. He knows 1,000 or so songs. He’s very studious. There no question to me. But he looked at the landscape of things and said I could be this piano player and maybe I make it great, maybe I don’t. But when you sing, that’s another ballgame. He wouldn’t have done that playing piano. He still has been important in bringing the modern New Orleans sound to piano.
DeRiso: That bad record deal came at exactly the wrong time. Pontius Pilate’s Decision, your terrific 1992 debut, had a couple of showcase moments for brothers Jason and Wynton. Jason showed, even at 14, this amazing propulsion. And I’m not sure that Wynton’s trumpet turn on “Weary Ways” isn’t his best moment ever.
Marsalis: From that period, it’s easily in the canon as one of his best. It definitely makes the top 10 of his solos. Jason was still just approaching high school, and he had his schooling to deal with. It’s just one of those things. There were a lot of reasons why I left RCA. I think people didn’t expect that strong of an outing. They weren’t prepared for it. “We know Wynton, and Branford is cool; he played with Sting. Why do we have to put up with a third one?” That is an example where if somebody else would have put this out, it might have done better. The ideas from the Bible, those were stories that were important to me — and they might not have been as important to others. I think Sweet Thunder is kind of an extension of that recording. We’re dealing with some of those same concepts, but with Duke Ellington.
DeRiso: You had a long tenure as a sideman with Elvin Jones, a stint that included 1997’s Jazz Machine. What was the most important thing you learned from working with him?
Marsalis: In school, we all learned how important it is to know these various elements of music. You leave with a harmonic understanding, and that gives you the ability to know certain songs. But with Elvin, the more important part was to have a really personal sound. He always said: ‘What you play is what you experience in real life.’ It was the quest for individuality. You have to learn the tradition, but you have to create your own voice. He’d say: ‘Be yourself; be honest.’ That’s something I always strive for.
DeRiso: What’s the most important thing that you’ve taken away from performing these Duke Ellington-related shows, both musically and through the theater production? Do we still have more to learn about his work?
Marsalis: You have to keep the core of the original message somehow. I think that was the challenge, and what I am most proud of. If they were around to hear it, they would say: ‘Yeah, man.’ We kept enough of the original language, and added new ingredients. Really, this is the challenge that all orchestras are having: What to do with Beethoven, what to do with Mozart, other than just play the exact same thing?
DeRiso: There’s always been a strong influence of blues in your family’s music, from your stints with Fat Domino, Michael Ray and Ruth Brown to the work you did producing Branford’s Heard You Twice the First Time project with B.B. King and John Lee Hooker. How does blues fit into the jazz aesthetic today? It doesn’t seem to swing as much.
Marsalis: I think that’s a good point. The European element has taken over more prominence and more importance. It has to do with race. It’s always a tricky thing when you start talking about race, but Duke Ellington — who is clearly one of the great composers in American music — would always refer to his music as Negro folk music. Like Brahms and Beethoven, he relied on the folk music of his times. Jazz is rooted in folk music from the South, primarily from Negros. We are trying to remove that element from the music. Now it’s becoming a form of improvisational music. They try to remove race in the schools. They say anyone can improvise, that you can learn a system of improvisation as opposed to actually swinging. If you don’t have the folk element — the blues — then it’s not jazz. It can still be on a high level, but if you remove that, it’s something else. That’s the hardest element to come by, swinging. You can study the harmony and you can learn how to play. But the swing element requires a lot more time. I think the thrust today is to avoid swinging. They say it’s an old concept but like Branford said — not to someone who can swing. It’s a joy of expression.