The 2016-17 Jazz Series concluded this past Saturday, May 13 with trombonist Delfeayo Marsalis and his quintet. An apt way to end the series and send the various jazz ensembles off to their final performances of the year, Marsalis and his bandmates got to the core of enjoying oneself while playing jazz and making sure the audience did too.
The quintet consists of Marsalis, Khari Allen Lee on saxophones, Victor Atkins on piano, Eric Wheeler on bass and Adonis Rose on drums. I had not listened to or heard of any of these fine musicians going into the concert —save for the leader, although I am more familiar with his brother Wynton—but am grateful I had the privilege to hear them play. The quintet brought a youthful yet refined passion to the music that encouraged a strong connection from the musicians to the listener.
A lot of their enthusiasm and playfulness was apparent as soon as they stepped onto the Chapel stage. They all seemed comfortable and at home, especially Marsalis, who moved around excitedly and fluidly, not only during introductions, but throughout the entire concert. While playing, he would physically interact with the rhythm section, nodding with his trombone or walking closer to them to converse. This was often reciprocated, as well as there being several moments when one member would smile and quickly spread it around the rest of the band. Instances like this made it supremely clear how much they all loved being able to play together and for such a welcoming audience.
Of course, this attitude would be very little without engaging music as its accomplice, but the quintet had the chops to bring forth a rich energy to their sonic artistry, adorning originals and standards alike. Prevalent throughout, the raw yet polished energy could be found right away in the opening tune, “The Irish Whiskey Blues.” Beginning with an excited rumble from the rhythm section, the piece was immediately in motion, a simple call and response head propelling it forward. Each member of the quintet took a solo, but never did it lose its momentum. A large reason for this was each member doing their part to keeping the tune fresh. For Marsalis’s solo, Rose switched to tambourine and limited hi-hat and bass drum, opening up and largely changing the texture. To move from this section a bit later, Marsalis focused on the lower end of his instrument as Rose returned to set. Subtle changes like this were peppered throughout, but all the while the group kept it totally tied together.
Another couple of qualities that allowed the band to form a strong bond with the audience were the general laid-back attitude of the performance and the lighthearted antics Marsalis added in at just the right amount. Whether it was introducing a tune with a wry sense of humor, dancing during a cohort’s solo or something completely different, it was clear that he was serious, but not too serious to often let loose. He always had the perfect balance of stellar musicality and a sense of fun. This mostly came through on the classic “Straight No Chaser,” where Lee and Wheeler sat out so Assistant Professor of Music Tim Albright and Associate Professor of Music Mark Urness could join in on trombone and bass, respectively. The two trombones took care of the melody, playing it goofily but with care, each noticeably having a good time. This continued into their solos and it was beautiful to see all parties looking up to each other, no matter experience or background. The two stayed for another tune and being able to witness the visiting artist invite faculty to hang out and play with them told me a lot about the group.
Another highlight of the show was Marsalis’ tune “Lost in the Crescent,” a spiritual journey about two laborers going through life. Although very rooted in the dense tradition the quintet pulled from for most of the set, this piece was also very free and open, allowing for lengthy, powerful solos from Lee, Atkins and Marsalis. During Lee’s solo, the rhythm section swirled around him ethereally while Marsalis peeked over the top occasionally, providing a different dimension of sound. The tune featured a different palette and approach than the rest of their set—one that I loved, but wish I had heard more of at other points during the concert.
There is really no other way to say it: this concert was fun. So much music, perhaps especially jazz, can get bogged down in a more serious light. While that serves a purpose, it is always refreshing to see a band kick back but still produce some really amazing sounds. The Delfeayo Marsalis Quintet certainly did that and I could not have had a better time.