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.

Marsalis wants to captivate young people and turn on new listeners, but he's going to do so on his own terms. "People are always struggling with 'Am I going to sell out for commerce or am I going to stay true to my art?'" he notes. "The people who sell out, they know. It's like a big game. If you put on Kenny G and David Sanborn, and then John Coltrane and Charlie Parker, if you just play those four individuals for anybody, the people will know what it is. They know that one makes them feel more at home and is something they can relate to. The other requires a certain amount of intellect and knowledge to get into it. We live in this fantasy land. It's like people are afraid to say Kenny G is not playing jazz. But I think we have to come on in and call it like it is." And Marsalis is not one to suffer pretenders gladly. "What we have here is just prostitution. They are pimping the name of jazz, trying to latch onto the fact that Duke Ellington was a genius and Louis Armstrong was a genius, and Charlie Parker was a genius, and Thelonious Monk.... And these people latch onto that because that's like credibility. Popular musicians make all the money, but jazz musicians have all the credibility. People like Kenny G play pop music A they should just label it that. But you know, then the grandeur of it would be lost. They couldn't say he's the greatest jazz saxophonist. They'd have to say he's the greatest pop instrumentalist, which he is," Marsalis grudgingly admits.

Other contradictions arise from the man himself. An intellectual, Marsalis talks street. He reveres those who went before him (particularly trombonist J.J. Johnson, to whom he dedicates Pilate), but claims to have gotten nothing out of stints with Art Blakey, Ray Charles, and Fats Domino ("I don't have much to say about that," he says.). And although his first album received critical acclaim, he has no use for jazz critics, whom he believes to be frustrated musicians stuck in the past. "They heard John Coltrane in the Sixties, and that's the end of jazz to them," he complains. "I'm not opposed to that for them, but they're trying to bogard that on us and say, 'These young musicians are not doing anything new.' I've had conversations with many of these guys and I say, 'What about this?' and point out certain elements that Wynton and Branford and their bands brought to the music. And these guys, they don't want no addressage. So that's something we're trying to face: how can we get not only the students to be more involved, but also obtain a certain level of respect from the people who are writing about the music A the, quote, jazz aficionados."

Respect seems inevitable for the trombonist whose seamless chromatic scales and challenging arrangements match his formidable production skills. Once again, though, contradictions. "The thing about music, it's how smooth, how sweet you can play," he says. "That's always been the true testing element of any musician. If you're a spiritual player, but you never practice, you'll sound like shit. You have to have a combination. All the great musicians, in any idiom, have always had phenomenal technique. And it's through that that they've always been able to express what they were doing."

Marsalis has been expressing himself through music and production quite a bit lately, and plans to return to the studio in June for his sophomore album. Other projects include production duties on Branford's new album, Bloomington, Wynton's latest, Resolution of Romance, Vol. 2, pianist Marcus Roberts's The Truth Is Spoken Here, and father Ellis's new Blue Note release. Then there's his involvement with BRAVO. "They called me on the phone," he yawns, "and asked me if I wanted to do a gig for them. And I said yes." But the disinterested jazz cat knows better than to be too coy. "We're trying to figure out how to expose more people to jazz and also make it interesting," he says of his JazzFest program. "We're trying to get people more involved and at the same time educate them."

Which he does in Branford's liner notes. "I wrote: 'The negro is a natural musician. He can learn to play more quickly than a white man,'" he laughs. "I got that from a music journal from 1865."

Delfeayo Marsalis will be hosting the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival on WLRN-FM (91.3) this weekend.

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