Conscious Pilot

Trombonist Delfeayo Marsalis refuses to slide on his brothers' reps

"Welcome to Club Bravo, home of...the extremely bright light that's shining in my eyes. That was supposed to be a hint, bro." Delfeayo (pronounced DEL-fee-yo) Marsalis is doing what he's supposed to: charming the pants off this somewhat stodgy, tanned and blazered crowd of arts patrons, cable moguls, and assorted VIPs gathered for the BRAVO channel's promotional performance at the Alexander Hotel. They're eating it up: The hip, well-tailored musicians. The stage patter. The completely in-the-pocket standards. The requisite blues-shoutin' female singer. Standing ovations prompt a not-at-all-spontaneous return for "Amazing Grace."
"We did that as a joke at the soundcheck," Marsalis says of the near cliche gospel staple. To the fourth brother of the New Orleans musical dynasty, this was just another gig, perhaps a chance to gain some exposure, plug the product like a good pitchman. No original tunes were played, despite the depth (and intelligence) of the young trombonist's repertoire as displayed on his 1992 debut Pontius Pilate's Decision, for which he wrote or co-wrote all the tunes. But business comes before chops. As the on-air host for BRAVO's Friday night program JazzFest, and the shill for a documentary special about Afro-Cuban jazz, Rhythmstick (airing this Friday), Marsalis has been touring with his snap-tight quintet to promote the cable channel.

BRAVO insists Delfeayo can and often does play what he wants. Pianist Victor "Red" Atkins says the group was asked to tone down their set list.

Not that that's a bad thing. The fivesome performed some elegant and tasteful selections from the Golden Book of Jazz Standards: "Satin Doll," "On Green Dolphin Street," "But Beautiful," "Tenderly," "Since I Fell."

Growing up in New Orleans, in a family where music was second nature (although two brothers are not musicians), Delfeayo had picked up, and later put down, the trombone (that's trambone in Bourbon Street vernacular). He tried drums. Too uncoordinated. He tried electric bass. Hurt his fingers. So, while studying music production at Berklee A at age 27, he's produced 30 albums, including those of his brothers and his pianist father, Ellis A Marsalis drifted back to this most unwieldy brass horn. Pilate is the splendid result.

Answering the door to the mauve and mahogany suite with an impish grin and slight stoop, Marsalis not only shares elfin features with his brothers Wynton and Branford, but mannerisms as well. Attired in blue sweats, T-shirt, and white-cotton socks, he sprawls on a couch, immediately picking up the tape recorder and taking charge of the interview. He speaks into the built-in mike with the sleepy voice of a late-night jazz DJ, pointing it toward the interviewer when he's asked a question.

The concept for his heady first album was actually inspired by one of the most despised men in America. "I was watching an Easter special one year and that was the year David Duke had his greatest support in Louisiana," Marsalis explains. "He reminded me a lot of Barabbas [the thief who was chosen, rather than Christ, by the multitudes to be spared from crucifixion]. In a lot of ways, David Duke was the best thing for the black community of New Orleans in a very long time, probably since the Sixties. We had people going from door to door at 9:00 a.m. saying, 'Go out and vote. We have to put a stop to this.' But that he would have so much support was surprising."

If it seems surprising that a young jazz musician would choose the Bible as the foundation on which to build his Ellingtonian suites, consider that Marsalis is also currently working on his masters in English at the University of New Orleans. "The Bible covers the broadest range of human emotion and human experience in Western literature," he says. "So I tried to take varied themes that centered around the Crucifixion and liken them to what I saw going on in society today and put it to music."

Marsalis worked out his compositions on piano, consciously trying to convey a certain ambiance for each piece. "Barabbas" A the first tune he wrote for the album A opens with the sinister rumbling of acoustic bass, as do most of the compositions. "I tried to come up with a bass vamp that had a real eerie, deceptive vibe A bom, bom, bom, bom, bom," he says. "That generally sets the tone. You listen to that record, and within five or ten seconds you know the vibe of each tune. First we have the deceptive, evil part, which the tenor player [the outstanding Mark Turner] plays. And you figure someone like Barabbas has to have some element in him that wins over the public appeal, and that's the very smooth, slick, and sly type of guy A that's the part I play. And at the end, he comes back to his real self, which is the tenor solo, and you just get real tense and evil again."

The suites cover a lot of ground, from the epic "Adam's Ecstasy; Eve's Delight" to the hard-swinging "Nicodemus" to the mournful "The Last Supper." Although certainly not avant-garde, the album is far from easy-listening fare.

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