Celebrating Ellis Marsalis: Live Last Night

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Live Last Night

It wasn't easy, but New Orleans jazz pianist and patriarch Ellis Marsalis managed to cram a few words in edgewise as the annual Duke Ellington Jazz Festival drew to an exuberant close at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall last night.

Dubbed "Celebrating a Jazz Master," the sold-out concert found Marsalis surrounded by family and friends onstage, all eager to toast and roast him. The salute was peppered with tunes designed to evoke various aspects of Marsalis's five-decade career and prominently featured musical collaborations with four of his sons.

(Read the rest of the review after the jump.)

The evening opened with some Louis Jordan-inspired jive and closed with guest (and Marsalis protégé) Harry Connick Jr. leading a fulgent Crescent City parade up and down the aisles with a twirling umbrella in tow.

In between were reminders of Marsalis' abundant gifts: his winning way with a ballad (eldest son Branford called him a "closet sentimentalist"); his natural affinity for swift bop tempos; his understated way of creating elegantly re-harmonized accompaniments (he and Connick, in fine voice, were warmly paired on "Stardust"); and his mastery of traditional New Orleans rhythms and funk offshoots.

And certainly among the evening's great pleasures was the chance to hear Marsalis and special guest Billy Taylor turn "Body And Soul" into a haunting rhapsody for two pianos. Marsalis, 74, also got a chance to team up with pianist Connick when "Sweet Georgia Brown" acquired a sharply syncopated accent.

Playing with his offspring -- Branford on tenor and soprano saxophones, Wynton on trumpet, Delfeayo on trombone and Jason on drums and vibes -- and with the support of bassist Eric Revis and drummer Herlin Riley, Marsalis was in typically relaxed form, contributing to moods tinged with various shades of blues and bursting with jubilant polyphony.

The siblings, however, were armed to the teeth with family anecdotes -- some heartfelt, some uproarious -- and Connick, who recalled being "traumatized" by the Marsalis brothers in his youth, was quick to add a few more.

Branford and Wynton recalled early childhood encounters with the jazz life ("old men telling nasty jokes") and witnessing their father's unwavering dedication to his work, no matter how small or inattentive the audience.

During one noisy and poorly attended hotel gig, Wynton leaned over the piano and asked his father if all the chatter bothered him, only to be told: "Shhh!"

By far the most stirring and eloquent spoken word tribute was delivered by Wynton's younger sibling, writer Ellis Marsalis III, who recited a poem he recently composed for his father. It not only drew a standing ovation from the crowd, it left his brothers utterly speechless -- that is, until Branford finally broke the silence. "Now I'm sorry I used to beat you up, man," he said.

When it was the honoree's chance to speak, Ellis Marsalis quickly deflected the attention. Receiving the festival's Lifetime Achievement Award, he thanked his wife, Dolores, for always being "next to me, or out front, leading the way."

Dolores Marsalis, who attended but declined to appear onstage, was also hailed by her sons for her sacrifices and fortitude -- as well as her unambiguous approach to parenting. Indeed, Wynton recalled complaining once too often about having to eat spaghetti for dinner, back when he was a youngster, full of himself and totally oblivious to the demands placed on his mother's time and energy. After scooping the plate off the table, his mom dumped the spaghetti onto her son's then-sprouting Afro with a little flourish. "Every king deserves a crown," she quipped.

-- MIKE JOYCE

By J. Freedom du Lac |  June 16, 2009; 11:40 AM ET Live Last Night
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What a beautiful piece, thanks Free. And thank you, Ellis.

Posted by: sockpuppet68 | June 16, 2009 12:32 PM

Mike Joyce wrote the nice piece. So how come there were no reviews of the outdoor Duke Ellington fest shows? I do not get it, you folks can run 2 reviews in 7 months of David Byrne touring behind the same cd, and countless reviews (old and new) of Springsteen, but Irma "Time Is On My Side" Thomas makes a rare local appearance and no coverage. Rebirth, Little Freddie King, Terrence Blanchard, Trombone Shorty, Donald Harrison and Nicholas Payton were all in town at the fest, and that's not a regular thing that should be overlooked.

Posted by: outsider8 | June 17, 2009 12:55 AM

My duh, saw the poster, skipped the byline.

Also, how could you miss out on the Tinner Blues Festival kick off at the State Theater with Bobby "Watch Your Step" Parker and the Godfather of GoGo Chuck Brown? Monumental!

Posted by: sockpuppet68 | June 17, 2009 10:57 AM

Tinner Hill, that is.
http://www.tinnerhill.org/blues/

Posted by: sockpuppet68 | June 17, 2009 10:59 AM

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