Ellis Marsalis is the patriarch of one of the most prominent jazz families in America. He has played piano and taught jazz in his native New Orleans for decades, but it is only since his more famous sons, particularly Wynton and Branford, have come to prominence that he has started to gain some well-deserved recognition. (Marsalis and his sons are group recipients of the NEA Jazz Masters Award for 2011.) His former pupils include well-known jazz artists Terence Blanchard, Donald Harrison, and Nicholas Payton. Despite coming from New Orleans, Ellis was never a Dixielander, and back in the day he played with the likes of Cannonball and Nat Adderley.
On March 17, he played at the San Francisco Jazz (SFJAZZ) Festival in a quartet that was a bit of a family affair, as it featured youngest son Jason on vibes. The elder Marsalis plays with a gentle elegance and sureness of touch that speaks of the years spent below the radar in New Orleans. One can see where his sons absorbed so much music and musical history from. Jason, who is known primarily as a drummer, is a terrific and lively vibes player. Father and son showed a wonderful sense of playfulness as they made music together.
The program featured a lively dose of Thelonious Monk tunes taken from Ellis’s 2008 album, An Open Letter to Thelonious, including “Evidence,” “Round Midnight,” and “Straight, No Chaser.” The interpretations were both faithful to the originals and updated too. The group also played a wonderful version of an old King Oliver tune called “Doctor Jazz,” with Ellis starting out on solo piano, attempting to adhere to a 1920s playing style, then the group coming in for an extended and swinging modern version. The evening was a class act all the way.