While the recording studio offers an ideal, controlled environment for audio fidelity and perfectionist tinkering, the bandstand is where any musician's mettle is tested - live, in the moment, under the scrutinizing gaze of a rapt audience. On Kalamazoo, trombonist/composer Delfeayo Marsalis (pronounced Del-fee-oh) places his gift for entertaining a crowd under the spotlight, vividly capturing not only the buoyant, lively chemistry that he shares with a stellar quartet, but also his engaging rapport with an audience, and his playful sense of humor.
Kalamazoo, out now via Marsalis' own Troubadour Jass Records, documents a single performance, recorded in the midst of a seven-day tour supporting Marsalis' The Last Southern Gentlemen CD. As on that album, the trombonist is joined by his legendary father, pianist Ellis Marsalis, along with a newly assembled rhythm section consisting of bassist Reginald Veal and the mighty Ralph Peterson on drums. The recording is in one sense a snapshot of a single, once-in-a- lifetime evening, the first night this particular quartet had ever shared the stage and full of spontaneous, unrehearsed moments that will never be repeated. At the same time it's a representative portrait of a typical Delfeayo Marsalis performance, each one unique but ensuring the same timeless, swinging thrills.
"Live recordings are important because they truly capture the essence of who you are as a person and how you play as a musician," Marsalis says. "Different artists create their definitive live recordings at different points in their career. For example, my brother Branford was 31 when he recorded Bloomington. Wynton was 42 when he was finally captured on Live at the House of Tribes. This is my equivalent to those recordings; it gives the listener a true understanding of who I am, how my shows are structured."
While a single night with a single band can't hope to represent the full range of Marsalis' musical vision - his last release was the big-band protest date Make America Great Again! and his more modern compositional side is showcased on albums like Pontius Pilate's Decision - Kalamazoo instead reveals the many sides of the trombonist's personality over the course of the evening. From elegant balladry to down and dirty blues, the celebratory gusto of his native New Orleans to the sophisticated swing of an Ellington classic, fiery passion to educational torch-passing, Marsalis' exhaustive knowledge of the jazz tradition and commitment to its future are evident throughout.
"In the jazz world these days, there's a lot of attention being paid to more introverted ways of playing," Marsalis explains. "We need more leaders like Count Basie or Louis Armstrong. Not that we have to imitate those older styles, but we have to provide the foundations of entertainment and swing in jazz performance. That, to me, is the importance of this album: it's inside, it's in the pocket, it's soulful, and you can feel the audience engagement. Yes, I think we have an obligation to represent the entire history of American music whenever possible because, one, we've studied it and two, it allows the younger musicians the opportunity to play more avant-garde. Someone has to hold down the fort!"
That's especially true on the concert's most surprising number, the theme from Sesame Street, which Marsalis reveals to be a blues before a ripple of astonished recognition spreads audibly through the crowd. He also skillfully draws them in with one of his specialties, a composition created on the spot - this time with the added wrinkle of a pair of Western Michigan University students brave enough to join the band. Singer Christian O'Neill Diaz and drummer Madison George acquit themselves admirably through the trial by fire that became "Blue Kalamazoo."
"Part of maturing is being able to not only assist, but to also challenge the younger generation," Marsalis says. "If we had performed a song that Christian sings all the time, he would have probably sung in auto- pilot mode. Creating a song together spontaneously forces you to reach deep inside and stay committed to the moment. It's an African tradition. After an hour of music, the audience had developed a rapport with the quartet, so when the students joined in everyone was basically thinking, 'All right, let's see what y'all got.' Because they were definitely underdogs in the situation, everyone was cheering for them to succeed. It was a beautiful moment in time and a great representation of the democratic process."
Democracy is also in action on the bandstand, as when the trombonist pauses to ask the senior Marsalis whether he wants to play the standard "If I Were a Bell" or "Emily" for a trio outing; the choice of "Bell" takes the program in a more upbeat direction. Playing with his formidable father, Delfeayo says, offers both an inspiring pressure and an ideal foil. "We make the perfect duo. My dad is pretty stoic and I tend to approach the music more from the standpoint of entertainment. I guess you could say we both keep each other honest! That's the great part of playing with older and younger musicians: the exchange of ideas and energy based on varying levels of experience."
The bulk of the evening consists of well-known standards called off the cuff, including such favorites as "My Funny Valentine," "Autumn Leaves," and "It Don't Mean a Thing." Marsalis' sultry, swaying "The Secret Love Affair" is reprised from The Last Southern Gentlemen, while the show closes, appropriately enough, with "Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans," an ode to the city with which the Marsalis clan is synonymous. In the end, the chosen material is perfectly suited, as it sets the stage for such a high-caliber band to stretch out and invent together.
"Sharing the bandstand with musicians at the top level allows you to express your musical ideas freely," Marsalis concludes. "You've got to be at the top of your game 100% of the time. All of our life experiences prepare us for today and now, and a great occasion was well-documented in Kalamazoo."
Internationally acclaimed trombonist, producer and educator Delfeayo Marsalis was named an NEA Jazz Master in 2011. In his native New Orleans, he founded the Uptown Music Theatre to provide professional dramatic arts training and encourage community unity in young people. Marsalis has produced over 120 jazz CDs and released seven albums as a leader - including the politically charged Make America Great Again! with his 15-piece Uptown Jazz Orchestra. He has composed 18 children's musicals and is the author of the award-winning children's book No Cell Phone Day.