Delfeayo Marsalis and his New Orleans-based Uptown Jazz Orchestra tore into the Side Door Jazz Club in Old Lyme on Thursday January. The ten-man band wouldn’t wait even for Side Door owner Ken Kitchings to finish his introductions. The procession started in the hall, wove through the sold-out room and up onto the stage.
Marsalis called out, “Hello Old Lyme! What I’d like to know is, where’s New Lyme?”
Kitchings called back, “You’re making it!”
Marsalis and his brilliant Crescent City players helped nudge that idea just a little closer to reality in a show filled with the wisest, happiest, saddest, swinging-est, oldest, newest music in the world, and with a deep sense of theater.
Delfeayo Marsalis is a trombone player, composer, bandleader, record producer, and a music-for-youth community activist. A member of the well-known Marsalis family, his Uptown Jazz Orchestra has been appearing weekly in New Orleans at the Snug Harbor Jazz Bistro and touring around the country for over ten years. Marsalis is a seriously innovative artist – there’s huge breadth in his choices. Among Marsalis’ multi-disciplinary endeavors are theatrical jazz pieces, musical works weaving Duke Ellington and Shakespeare together, an album based on biblical stories, and techniques for recording acoustic jazz that have set new standards in the industry. Plus a new album entitled Make America Great Again!
The Uptown Jazz Orchestra sends up its grooves in the original cadences of jazz. And beyond. In the first original “Snowball” alone, we got a ground-breaking solo from saxophonist Amari Ansari, a three-trumpet polyphonically cumulative call and response from Dr. Brice Miller, Andrew Baham, and Scott Frock, and a drum solo from Brian Richburg, Jr. that vibrated the frozen winter ground of Old Lyme with a positively steel pan feel.
Marsalis, in a plaid suit and bow tie, sparkled with energy and humor onstage. But in “Tin Roof Blues ” he brought the room to a hush with his simple clear tremolo on trombone. In the middle of the solo, he actually shushed everyone – with the trombone – to get more quiet. You could hear the ice clink in the room as he explored his way through the melody. Then suddenly the whole band erupted, hitting a single tone on cue, shaking the audience out of their seats. Later, new member Orlando Gilbert – one of the “youngsters” according to Marsalis – sent up an earthy, growling solo on saxophone.
Marsalis fronts his band with an easy combination of oligarchy and anarchy. On the tiny Side Door stage, he moved all over. One moment he was stage left vibing with Terrance “Hollywood” Taplin in the trombone section, then next moment he leaning into the piano stage right. In fact, the whole band was in motion throughout the show, shifting to highlight soloists, pairing up to create harmony lines like a revolving kaleidoscope. This movement was a beautiful kind of theater, and let us glimpse small moments – like Marsalis working with another “youngster” apprentice, Sean Mason on piano. Honing Mason’s approach during a solo, he called out to Richburg on drums to emphasize the downbeat on the rims of the snare.
Individual solos were punctuated with bandmembers encouraging each other…“Okay, slap it!” during upright bass player David Pulphus’ break-it-down solo – where it did seem he might slap the strings clean off the bass.
Dr. Miller gave us his own funny rendition of lyrics for “Bill Bailey, Won’t You Please Come Home.” “Java” from Make America Great Again! had another tear-it-all-apart solo from Ansari, and a clear resonant trumpet solo from Frock. Finishing the first set was the soliloquy “Back to Africa” composed by Marsalis in tribute to Harlem Renaissance leader and Jamaican native Marcus Garvey. The elegiac tune ended in a long ritardando with Marsalis on trombone, Mason chiming hypnotizingly on the piano like a fog horn deep out at sea, and Baham and Frock tweeting on trumpets in harmony.
In the second set, Marsalis coaxed Kitchings up onto the stage to take over the drums for “It Don’t Mean a Thing If It Ain’t Got that Swing” which resulted in great back-and-forth rapport between all the band members and Kitchings. This set also included the Marsalis original “Irish Whiskey Blues,” a velvety “My Funny Valentine,” and Gershwin’s “Summertime.”
Marsalis/Miller’s original “I’m So New Orleans” was a rip-roaring Mardi Gras march to finish the show. “Carnival starts in January, on the Epiphany, in New Orleans. It’s already happening!” he told the audience. Dr. Miller finally got the audience on their feet, singing and dancing into the encore, the ever-magnificent “Lil Liza Jane.” Which brings this music critic to her only critique…
What I’d like to know is, where are the women up there?
Clare Byrne is a dancer-and-choreographer-turned-songwriter who has performed and taught in New York City and environs, Burlington, VT, and around the world. In addition to songwriting via guitar, harmonica and piano, her multi-art projects have included Weekly Rites, an improvisational dance blog, and The Poor Sister Clares Traveling Dancing Monk Show, an experiment in gospel dance and gardening in Vermont. www.clarebyrnemusic.com