Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Delfeayo Marsalis' "Make America Great Again!"

In the midst of one of the most bizarre presidential elections the country has ever seen, Delfeayo Marsalis and the Uptown Jazz Orchestra do their part to Make America Great Again! On their debut recording, due out September 30 on Troubadour Jass Records, the trombonist/composer and his rollicking big band take back that tarnished slogan and run it up the flagpole of great American music, tracing its sounds from its African roots through the streets of New Orleans to the country as a whole.

Under the direction of NEA Jazz Master Delfeayo Marsalis, the Uptown Jazz Orchestra adds some home-cooked seasoning to original material and jazz classics that pay homage to America's great cultural traditions-blues, swing, groove and good old-fashioned Southern hospitality. Marsalis' tongue-in-cheek appropriation of a certain blustery candidate's motto hints at both the political and social consciousness of the album as well as its sense of barbed merriment and acid-tongued eloquence. Along the way, actor Wendell Pierce and Dirty Dozen Brass Band co-founder Roger Lewis join a host of the Crescent City's finest young players to provide an infectious, finger-snapping state of the musical union.

In its combination of dark political protest and raucous, rump-shaking grooves, Make America Great Again! could only come from Marsalis' native New Orleans, which is well known for meeting adversity with celebration and community. "That's New Orleans, that's jazz, that's the story of the African descendant in America," Marsalis says. "The African descendants have lived up to the American ideal more than any other ethnic group in the country. African-Americans helped to build the country, were brutalized and marginalized and still maintain an air of joy, sophistication and belief in American democracy."

Nowhere is that sentiment more vividly expressed than in Marsalis' opening arrangement of the "Star Spangled Banner," which undergirds the national anthem with foreboding harmonies that suggest the work still to be done in order to live up to our own ideals. "America is and always has been the greatest country in the world," Marsalis insists. "If we can live up to the ideals of what the Founding Fathers suggested that America is supposed to be, it will always be the greatest country in the world. America is great because of the inclusive nature of our original doctrines."

Of course, repeated in stump speeches around the country, the words "Make America Great Again" have tended to mask intolerance and exclusion under the guise of patriotism, but Marsalis says that's a dichotomy he's gotten used to growing up in the South. "Living in New Orleans, there's an everyday consciousness of the Confederacy and the despair that a lot of people have over their defeat. You still feel the ramifications of that. Folks are still fighting to keep the Confederate ideology alive, and that's what we see in the constant incarceration and brutality towards our young men."

That message is spelled out in the pointed monologue of the album's title track, read with wry humor by Treme star Wendell Pierce, a New Orleans native and high school associate of Marsalis. The bandleader wrote the text matching the dry wit of the music, which the UJO improvised based on an audience member shouting out the title when prompted for a theme. That sort of spontaneous composition - a challenge for a small band, let alone a 20-piece ensemble - is just one highlight of the UJO's regular Wednesday night residency at Snug Harbor, the world-renowned jazz club on bustling Frenchmen Street, where the band has been developing its sound and rapport since 2010.

"The identity of the band has been shaped into something that is completely unique and very much New Orleans," Marsalis says. "It's very important that we maintain that joy and exuberance that people equate with the city, but also maintain a direct connection to Africa. When I played with Elvin Jones and Max Roach and Art Blakey and Clark Terry, that was what those guys all told me: You've got to keep this sound going."

In keeping with that mission, the repertoire on Make America Great Again! ranges from a New Orleans classic like Rebirth Brass Band's "Put Your Right Foot Forward" or the Dirty Dozen Brass Band's "Snowball" - featuring UJO elder statesman Roger Lewis with a rousing baritone sax solo - to the deep swing of "Second Line," Duke Ellington's interpretation of that sound, or Benny Carter's toe-tapping "Symphony in Riffs." The band also marries that swing sound with a church influence, as on their Basie-influenced rendition of the standard "All of Me" with Kyle Roussel's sanctified piano.

Marsalis' originals deftly marry his profound message with infectious melodies, as on the sing-along funk of "Back to Africa," which features New Orleans rapper Dee-1 expounding on those roots. "Dream on Robben" is a lilting elegy to Nelson Mandela, who the composer calls "a great man amongst great men." Finally, "Living Free and Running Wild" looks back wistfully to the time when America was at its best, according to Marsalis - "in 1492, a week before Columbus arrived, with no buildings or cars, just open land. I wouldn't trade the air conditioning and indoor plumbing, but how great must that have been?"

The leader takes the spotlight for "Skylark," showcasing his moving, lyrical ballad playing, then lets the band show off its funky strut on Allen Toussaint's classic "Java," featuring Roderick "Reverend" Paulin's tenor sax. They bring things to a close with a stirring arrangement of Aaron Copland's "Fanfare for the Common Man."

Despite the serious themes, Make America Great Again! is anything but heavy, offering a wonderfully upbeat and spirited collection of songs determined to make listeners move even as it asks them to think. As Marsalis says, "People have told me, 'You play feel-good music,' and I say, 'Why would we play anything else?' Don't come check out the Uptown Jazz Orchestra if you feel like being depressed. We're all about having a spiritual connection and understanding that we're here to make the world a better place."

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