“I was playing this groove on the drums one day, so Dad walks in and says, ‘Yeah man, I like that.’ And he goes to the piano and he works out this vamp and a few days later, he plays it so it leads into ‘Surrey With the Fringe on Top.’ I was like, ‘ Yeah .'”
For those of us with the misfortune to not have been born with the last name Marsalis, this, according to 21-year-old Jason, is what life is like in New Orleans’ first family of jazz. While the two eldest brothers left the Crescent City as teenagers to proselytize for the jazz tradition (Wynton) and the duality of jazz modernism and postmodern funk (Branford), Jason and father Ellis seem like different sorts of cats. “I’m gonna be on my own in a minute,” Jason said. But clearly, living at home and playing in his father’s trio for the past six years has suited him. As for Ellis, except for a three-year teaching stint in Richmond, he’s never left Louisiana, content with local gigs, university jazz posts and helping raise some very strong-willed boys. Even when Wynton and Branford became major-label world-beaters, Ellis was not himself consumed with worldly musical ambition. “When Wynton’s manager asked if he could work on my behalf,” Marsalis père said, “I told him, ‘I’m not doing that much. I’m just in New Orleans.'”
The proof that a major artist need never have to leave home, much less worry about the ramifications of returning to it, is the Ellis Marsalis Trio’s new album, Twelve’s It (Columbia). (Father, son and bassist Bill Huntington play the Iridium on June 23-28.) Sharp eyes will note the Father’s Day synchronicity-trust Columbia not to pass on an obvious P.R. tie-in-but the album and the gig are more notable for the music, the supple groove of a band that beats according to the same internal clock.
Ellis, however, was in no hurry to record the trio. Although he has led 12 album sessions (hence the title), he seems more comfortable sauntering onto one of his son’s projects-Wynton’s Resolution of Romance , Branford’s The Loved Ones -than calling attention to himself. Jason, who produced the new album, admitted he had to twist his father’s arm. “We’d been together for some time and we were sounding like a trio ,” he said, “trio” summoning for him all that’s possible and desirable in jazz. “I thought, we’ve really got to record. My father was just killin’ in that setting.”
Which he is. There’s something about the intimacy of a trio setting that rewards pianists who don’t call attention to themselves in obvious ways. (Of course, if they’re as desultory a careerist as Ellis Marsalis, they best have sons who do.) Although Ellis Marsalis is a member of the bebop generation, there is a finesse and slyboots humor to his touch that suggests a courtlier older generation, Nat “King” Cole or Teddy Wilson, say, as well as more extroverted two-handed stride masters. As Ellis Marsalis explains it, he left a comfortable three-year gig with Al Hirt and, in the early 70’s, joined up with the Storyville Jazz Band, which played a more traditional New Orleans repertoire.
“My approach was more modernistic back then,” he said. “Then one night, I tried to play some stride piano and everyone laughed. I tried again and everybody laughed again. I didn’t want to be making fun of anything, so I went back to the records of Jelly Roll [Morton] and James P. [Johnson] and Willie (The Lion) [Smith], and it dawned on me that these guys have ideas, too, just not the same ones as the beboppers.”
Moving at his own deliberate speed, Ellis Marsalis has developed into a kind of Exhibit A for Wynton’s paeans to the jazz tradition. With Ellis, there are no explicit homages to the greats, just a suggestion of history, of inevitability, that weights his note choices and dynamics-the same thing you get with Hank Jones and Tommy Flanagan, whose estimable ranks, late in life, Ellis has joined. (“You can hear that stride in Hank Jones if you know what it sounds like,” he said. “If you don’t, it just becomes some more Hank Jones.”) On Twelve’s It , most of which is originals, he finds a compositional soul mate in clarinetist and fellow Louisiana jazz professor Alvin Batiste, whose “Mozartin'” invites Ellis to sound cerebral, fractured and deeply old-fashioned. Imagine a gentler Southern version of that stride-steeped New Yorker Thelonious Monk.
It’s one of the minor jazz mysteries that a great lead instrumentalist can depend so heavily on a great drummer to push him on. If a firm tempo was all that was required, a metronome would do the trick. But especially for an easygoing pianist like Ellis Marsalis, the push of a drummer’s beats and cross-accents rouse him to the possibilities of the moment. Ellis fortunately didn’t have to go out of his way to find the right player; he grew one at home. In retrospect, the plan seems perfect. The aggressive older kids march off to stardom, the young one is filled with the family musical wisdom until he can ascend the heights and take the old man with him. “It wasn’t so easy to get musicians to play straight ahead,” Ellis said in his laconic, deflationary way. “Jason would just come along to the gigs and do it. It just seemed natural.”
Let it be said that Jason Marsalis, who also now works regularly with the pianist Marcus Roberts, has grown into something more than a stopgap. His sensitivity to rhythm is so acute, his long arms over the kit remind me of a frog leg being prodded with an electrode. He twitches in time. And he has the perfect pitch and the classical percussion background to provide the timbral support as well. “I’m not just going ‘clang-a-lang-a-lang,’ playing time on the ride cymbals,” Jason said. “I’m orchestrating things around what the trio is doing.” Dad is, of course, impressed. “There’s more than enough evidence to substantiate the possibility that he will be a special musician,” Ellis said judiciously. But he’s not about to give it up too easily.
When Ellis says “I’ve been very fortunate in drummers,” he lets you know he’s talking about two former New Orleans bandmates, James Black, a local legend, and Ed Blackwell, a modernist percussion icon. When I passed that on to Jason, he bristled a bit-“I’m not going to be playing with my father forever, anyway”-then allowed as how he’s got some more work to do before he passes into the jazz drumming pantheon. As a kid, he took a couple of lessons from both Black and Blackwell, he said, “but once I realized how great they were, they died.” Still, listening to Jason on tunes like “Mozartin’,” or that shopworn vehicle for inspiration, “The Surrey With the Fringe on Top,” you can hear Blackwell’s meld of New Orleans parade rhythms and African drum patterns. It remains to be seen where the young Marsalis’ other musical passions, Stravinsky and Bartók, will someday fit into the mix.
In all things outside of music, Jason sounds like a young 21-year-old, goofy and freewheeling, unlike his sharper, more polished older brothers. But he’s got the family ambition. “There’s things I play that hopefully someday will become the norm,” he said. “I’ve got a lot of ideas.” His father’s son to be sure, but even more so, his brothers’ brother.