September 2003

The Marsalis Family - A Jazz Celebration
Rounder 613302
Released: 2003

by John Crossett

Musical Performance ****
Recording Quality ****
Overall Enjoyment ****

Some recordings seem destined to happen. For almost two decades people have been trying unsuccessfully to get Ellis Marsalis and his band of jazz offspring together on the same stage or in the studio. It’s proven just too hard to find a time when all the scheduling planets aligned. I guess that’s the price you pay when you become the first family of jazz. But when Ellis retired from the University of New Orleans in August 2001 after nearly 25 years (he founded the university’s jazz studies program), all the excuses were finally laid to rest and the event was on. A Jazz Celebration makes permanent history of the results.

On A Jazz Celebration Wynton Marsalis and his brothers -- Branford (saxophone), Delfeayo (trombone), and Jason (drums) -- are joined by bassist Roland Guerin in accompanying Ellis in a musical demonstration that covers much of the history of jazz. That the Marsalis children can play everything from Dixieland to modern jazz is a given, but listening to Ellis dance right along side them is the real treat of A Jazz Celebration. He comps and solos with ease.

The opening cut, "Swinging at the Haven," written by Ellis in the early 1960s, combines complexity and swing in the manner of McCoy Tyner, Herbie Hancock, or Sonny Clark. His take on the Rogers & Hammerstein tune "Surrey with the Fringe on Top" demonstrates his ability to deviate and build on the melody while never straying far from it. And when he plays the Dixieland classic "St. James Infirmary" (with special guests Lucien Bararin on trombone and Harry Connick, Jr. providing the vocals), you’d think he was in on its creation.

But don’t for a minute think that A Jazz Celebration is simply a vehicle for Ellis Marsalis to demonstrate his prowess as a pianist. This is a group recording. The interplay among the musicians is almost uncanny, until you suddenly remember the connection -- they’re family. What a joy it is to hear Branford and Wynton trading shots on "Cain And Able." Back and forth they go, each out to best the other in a musical equivalent of sibling rivalry. Delfeayo and Jason also play very impressively. Jason is especially noteworthy -- his masterful drum work is the glue that holds the proceedings together.

The somewhat tacky cover art could deceive you into thinking that A Jazz Celebration has nothing more than bootleg-quality sound, but this live recording has tremendous presence. It was recorded on August 4, 2001 by John McLure and Stan Dacus, and mixed by Branford and Delfeayo. Greg Calbi does his usual sterling job at the mastering desk. You’ll never find any sonic reasons to miss a moment of this wonderful music. While it’s not the best live jazz recording I’ve ever heard, it ranks high.

A Jazz Celebration leaves no doubt as to the position of the Marsalis family in the jazz world. Their musical understanding, group cohesiveness, and technical ability are now on permanent display. All those years leading up to this album have proven to be worth the wait. And I hope that we won’t have to sit an equally long time for the sequel. After all, Ellis isn’t getting any younger, and, as this disc displays, the Marsalis family is a jazz group of the first order. Destiny’s been served. Pass this one up at your own risk.