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By Don Heckman
Los Angeles Times
In “The Marsalis Family: A Jazz Celebration” (*** 1/2, Marsalis Music), the only nonmember of the family in the ensemble is bassist Roland Guerin. Beyond that, it’s all Marsalis: patriarch Ellis on piano, saxophonist Branford, trumpeter Wynton, trombonist Delfeayo and drummer Jason.
It took a tribute concert marking Ellis Marsalis’ retirement from his teaching duties at the University of New Orleans to bring father and four sons together on the same stage, in the same band, for the very first time.
So how well do they work together? Well, for one thing, it’s always worth keeping context in mind with an album of this sort. Yes, the Marsalis name is jazz magic, and it’s fascinating to hear father and sons working as an ensemble, especially in a program that includes four works by the elder Marsalis. But the presumably small amount of time available for serious rehearsal is clearly evident in the not-always-precise ensemble work.
That’s generally not a problem, since the material from the concert that was chosen for the CD emphasizes improvisation — individually and collectively. More intriguingly, what emerges in the various solo segments is the surprising degree of difference in style and musical manner between the Marsalis brothers.
Wynton’s articulate craftsmanship is in fine form throughout. Branford, always more interested in envelope-stretching i improvisation, is more subdued, less musically present than he was in a duet album with his father, “Loved Ones.” Jason, the youngest, has matured into a solid, dependable drummer.
The real surprise, however, is the solid work of Delfeayo. Always an engaging improviser, he performs here with great warmth and imagination.
Finally, there is Ellis Marsalis, himself. One of the great pleasures of this family performance is the opportunity to hear Ellis’ crafty music from the ’60s (with its Horace Silver overtones), combined with the crisp rhythmic touch and the riff-driven, melodic orientation of his improvising.
Best of all, the Marsalis program (which will also be available on DVD and a PBS special) appeals for a reason that reaches beyond the performance itself: The four sons’ obviously sincere desire to celebrate the life of a much-loved parent by enthusiastically displaying the gifts he was so instrumental in furthering.