In the cover notes of the Uptown Jazz Orchestra’s new CD, “Jazz Party,” trombonist Delfeayo Marsalis describes an encounter in Stockholm, Sweden, with a fan who wanted to know what kind of jazz he was playing.
“Modern jazz,” replied Marsalis.
The fan was disappointed. “Oh, I don’t like modern jazz,” he said. “I only like happy jazz.”
This exchange sums up the blow on modern jazz in general, and the members of the Marsalis musical family in particular: this pleasure is abandoned in favor of a serious formality.
But Delfeayo refutes that accusation with his vibrant sartorial savvy, the title “Jazz Party” and the hour of invigorating and, yes, fun music it contains.
The Uptown Jazz Orchestra is, like the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra, a high-level ensemble of musicians who are both a testing ground and a proven entity. Of the two, the Uptown Jazz Orchestra of Marsalis is the more active unit. For years, until the coronavirus pandemic shut down local concert halls, the roughly 18 members of the Uptown Jazz Orchestra crowded the intimate stage at Snug Harbor Jazz Bistro every Wednesday night and went wild. for two sets. These shows usually started and ended with a festive, i.e., funny second-line song.
For many years, pianist Ellis Marsalis Jr. did not consider himself to have a “jazz career”.
With that in mind, guest singer Tonya Boyd-Cannon swings and moans on the new album’s opening title track, which serves as the invitation to this “Jazz Party”. Written by Marsalis, whose trombone is in the spotlight solo, “Jazz Party” combines gospel groove with horn lines that wouldn’t be out of place on a New Orleans funk or R&B record.
From there, the Uptown Jazz Orchestra connects to New Orleans brass band history with an intricate arrangement of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band’s “Blackbird Special”. Baritone saxophonist Roger Lewis, a member of both groups, performs solo alongside Marsalis while drummer Joe Dyson Jr. practices.
Later, the Uptown Jazz Orchestra borrows “Let Your Mind Be Free” by Soul Rebels, another strong composition from the canon of contemporary New Orleans music. The orchestra, as agile as it needs to be, recaptures the carefree sense of the song with brassy riffs and another Dyson groove, while also bringing its own twist to the song via saxophone and trombone solos.
Saxophonist Roderick Paulin is featured in “7th Ward Boogaloo” as the orchestra dreamily goes into big band mode, changing tempos and tones.
In the liner notes, Marsalis says the multi-textured “Raid On the Mingus House Party” was based on the endless 24-hour news cycle and its bombardment of conflict and tension. The mesh of the arrangement of several melodic ideas aims to get closer to madness, with clarinetist Gregory Agid, saxophonists Khari Lee and Scott Johnson and pianist Ryan Hanseler all solo.
In “Mboya’s Midnight Cocktail,” Karen Livers delivers a sultry tale of an imaginary late-night lounge bar encounter with Marsalis’ younger brother, Mboya, who is autistic and non-verbal. In her one-sided conversation, the narrator confuses Mboya’s silence with the fact that he is a mysterious “man of few words”.
The “So New Orleans” light on its feet presents a different kind of speech. Brice Miller, the trumpeter, educator and cultural commentator, embarks on a long rap of calls and answers about what makes him “so New Orleans” before releasing a trumpet solo. It’s not the kind of track that an artist who takes himself or his music too seriously would include.
In the aptly named “Dr. Hardgroove”, the Uptown Jazz Orchestra transforms into the Downtown Funk Orchestra. A tribute to trumpeter Roy Hargrove, “Dr. Hardgroove” features a deep, relaxed groove courtesy of drummer Raymond Weber Jr., percussionist Alexey Marti and bassist David Pulphus, as well as sparkling solos from Lee and trumpeter Andrew Baham.
Marsalis loosely based his jump-blues “Irish Whiskey Blues” on Kenny Kirkland’s “Chambers of Tain” as it is filtered through a thriving swing-era orchestra, with solos by Marsalis’ trombone and Scott Johnson saxophone.
“Caribbean Second Line” permeates rhythms from the islands that contributed to the sound of New Orleans, superimposed on the sensibility of the Uptown Jazz Orchestra.
An instrumental cover of “Mboya’s Midnight Cocktail” concludes the album as a last call to the club. As anyone who attended this “Jazz Party” can attest, it was a fun night.