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Soraya Stories

Delfeayo Marsalis and the Uptown Jazz Orchestra Swagger at The Soraya

By Kirk Silsbee

Brass bands smear the air with unbridled exuberance. A second line of dancers swagger-and-cut in their wake, goosed by the popping rhythms of parade drummers. Mardi Gras Indian tribes—Mandingo Warriors, Yellow Pocahontas and Wild Tchoupitoulas— shout Creole chants as they snake through the narrow 9th Ward streets, wearing beaded-and-feathered finery. Purple, green, and gold strands rain down from the French Quarter’s balconies of wrought iron into the hands of tipsy tourists, who clutch potent drinks like the “Hand Grenade.” It all happens in New Orleans.

Every night is Mardi Gras for Delfeayo Marsalis, who has been designated by Downbeat magazine as “a merchant of joy.” The trombonist will bring his Uptown Jazz Orchestra along with the Crescent City’s musical grit and soul to The Soraya on Wednesday, Feb. 7 as part of The Soraya’s third-annual Jazz at Naz Festival. The 17-piece crew makes immersive experiences of concert performances, with horn players walking the aisles as they wend their way to the stage.

Marsalis shared in a recent phone interview, “Not all of our arrangements are written out,” he said. “It’s a decided advantage for me to have such great musicians who can play ‘off the page’; a lot of classical composers can’t rely on who will be playing their music. Our music has room for both the party impulse and musical sophistication. Even if we’re playing modern jazz, we want to get to that R&B feeling.” He added, “But just listen to the soloists, and you can hear a history of jazz.”

Delfeayo belongs to the First Family of Jazz – the Marsalis clan. His mother Delores was related to Ellington bassist Wellman Braud and traditional clarinetist Alphonse Picou. Father Ellis was a well-regarded modern jazz pianist and educator whose work attracted visitors like alto saxophone icons Cannonball Adderley and Sonny Stitt. Brothers Branford and Wynton—tenor saxophone and trumpet, respectively — have been leading lights of contemporary jazz for over 30 years. Brother Jason, the youngest, is a well-regarded drummer. It was the trombone that captivated Delfeayo.

“I grew up hearing the great players on records — J.J. Johnson, Curtis Fuller, Urbie Green, and Al Grey. But one that I particularly loved was when Tommy Dorsey sat in with the Duke Ellington Orchestra on ‘Tonight I Shall Sleep,”’ Marsalis said. “He played those lyrical, long phrases, and that really spoke to me. That’s the way I play ballads now.”

Marsalis’s tenure with the band of John Coltrane drummer Elvin Jones taught him a valuable lesson. “It’s easy to be introverted and just play for yourself,” Delfeayo said, “Whether the audience likes it or not. But Elvin said that people didn’t turn out for the Coltrane Quartet until they recorded ‘My Favorite Things.’ That record allowed John Coltrane to move up in the world and play his more adventurous things.”

Another important entry on Marsalis’s resume is his years with trumpeter and singer Kermit Ruffins, whose rambunctious jazz makes him the unofficial New Orleans ambassador to the world. “Sometimes jazz can be too polite,” Marsalis said. “Kermit understands the entertainment aspect of the music; it’s rough and masculine, but it has pop appeal. And that’s our goal—to cover all of the musical bases: traditional New Orleans jazz, funk, popular song, and modern jazz.”

The Uptown Jazz Orchestra boasts players like trumpeters Andrew Baham, Scott Frock, and Lynn Grissett, trombonists Ethan Santos and Terrance ‘Hollywood’ Taplin, alto saxophonist Jerrone Ansari, tenor saxophonist Roderick Paulin (“We call him The Reverend,” Marsalis said, “He’s got attitude for days.”) the sturdy baritone saxophone of Shanna Ryan, bassist David Pulphus, the great drummer Marvin ‘Smitty’ Smith and singer Tonya Boyd-Connor.

Marsalis summed up the ensemble with, “We have very well-rounded players because there are so many ingredients that go into our blues—rhumba, funk, bebop, mambo, R&B, and even hip-hop.I look at the music of the Uptown Jazz Orchestra as a ten-course banquet. All our entrees and side dishes combine for a great musical meal.”

 

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Kirk Silsbee is a veteran Los Angeles journalist who writes about jazz and culture.

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