Live review

Delfeayo Marsalis Quintet at Birdland NYC

Delfeayo Marsalis Quintet
(Birdland NYC, 16 July 2021. Review by Dan Bergsagel)

Delfeayo Marsalis Quintet at Birdland. Photo credit: Marie Le Claire

“DEL. FEE. OH. You pronounce it Del-Fee-Oh.”

This is how Delfeayo Marsalis enters the stage: with gentle sass and a light rebuke, politely chiding the announcer for not having yet learnt how to pronounce his name. The interaction seems innocuous enough, however this one line concisely captures the duality of Marsalis and his music; on the one hand a happy-go-lucky classic entertainer, on the other a composer immediately confronting injustice through the microagression of mispronounced names.

The Delfeayo Marsalis Quintet are closing out a two-night stint at Birdland in Manhattan’s theatre district. The club only recently reopened at the start of the month, but it seems to be running as if it never closed. The mood is buoyant, and Marsalis is relaxed and confident, revelling in the crowd response and the background chatter. As one of the younger members of the New Orleans Marsalis Dynasty, he appears to have been born for the role of cheerfully delivering jazz standards to the public.

True to form they open with some Monk and an upbeat take on Autumn Leaves. Everyone gets a nice solo opportunity as Davis Whitfield’s robust piano moves along, shadowed by the trombone and sax. Marsalis leans into What a Wonderful World, and they happily accept a shouted request from the audience for Watermelon Man. The tidy drums from Jeff Watts are complemented by the percussive extra of the bar staff shaking their cocktails in time to the beat. This is the first side – the entertainer face – of the Delfeayo Marsalis Quintet.

The second side – the campaigning face – of Delfeayo Marsalis is revealed in the less traditional work. There was the cognitively dissonant, surprisingly positive Blues for Breonna Taylor, employing very delicate mute work slipping into an almost vocal approach. There was the haunting piece addressing the historic (and ongoing) injustices of the Reconstruction era bringing spoken word to the stage as Marsalis reads a Mississippi indentured labourer ‘contract renegotiation’, and a very fine emotional soprano lead from the excellent Marcus Strickland

The pinnacle of the set was the original Marsalis piece The Raid on the Mingus House Party, where through urgent arrangement and a busy Russell Hall on bass, the quintet at times sounded twice its size. The argumentative rapport between Marsalis’ trombone and Strickland’s tenor echo the divisive social climate in the US – the mood is well caught. But even this piece highlights the duality of Marsalis – a chaotic challenger of a piece hiding behind the innocent fun-loving album title Jazz Party.

New York City is excited to be back in the jazz clubs, and to be welcoming musicians from across the country to play in them. I was excited to learn that there was more to the Delfeayo Marsalis Quintet than meets the eye.

Delfeayo Marsalis Quintet earlier in the same week at the City Winery in Boston. Photo credit: Maria Over

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