Jazz Album of the Week: Delfeayo Marsalis and the Uptown Jazz Orchestra’s Jazz Party is Exactly That

Mar 17, 2020

March 16, 2020. While his better-known brothers, Branford and Wynton, are global phenomena, Delfeayo Marsalis, the trombonist, production whiz and fourth son born into jazz’s first family, has always preferred to keep things mostly about New Orleans.

The Uptown Jazz Orchestra (UJO), the 16-piece big band Delfeayo has directed since 2008, recently released its second studio album, Jazz Party, and it should come as no surprise that the music is simultaneously progressive and traditional, containing musical influences from across the jazz and blues universe and unmistakably rooted in the grooves of New Orleans second line.

Delfeayo and UJO maintain a weekly residence at Frenchmen Street’s Snug Harbor, where they present boisterous Dixieland fusion full of the very best kinds of bravado, bluster, and swagger. Jazz Party is as faithful a reproduction of the atmosphere that reigns supreme each Wednesday on Frenchmen as recorded music will allow—as someone who fundamentally changed the way acoustic jazz was recorded in the late ’80s, this is something Delfeayo knows plenty about (see brother Branford’s 1987 album Renaissance).

So if you’re looking for a jazz record to study to or to read with or to nurse contemplatively with a nightcap, this isn’t it. It’s exactly as advertised, a party.

The invitation to this Jazz Party is sent in the form of vocalist Tonya Boyd-Cannon’s smoky contralto, which, on the title track opener, is heraldic in the great tradition of  ’90s sitcom-opening theme music.

Check out Aretha Franklin’s intro music to seasons two through five of A Different World to see what I mean. This is an asset, not a liability. It heralds an album that will give you gospel and blues in equal measure with what we think of as jazz, which is pretty much what New Orleans-style jazz is about anyway.

On the production side, minor deduction for fading out the tune instead of allowing the track to resolve musically—that’s always seemed unbecoming a proper jazz album.

The next tune, “Blackbird Special,” is borrowed from the catalogue of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, a group credited with reinventing and reinvigorating New Orleans-influenced brass band music by cross-pollinating it with funk, bebop, R&B, and jam-band sensibilities.

UJO inherited musical DNA from Dirty Dozen; it inherited some actual human DNA, too — baritone saxophonist and Dirty Dozen alum Roger Lewis is indispensable to UJO’s presentation throughout the album and is the most prominently featured soloist on “Blackbird Special,” the tune that officially starts the party listeners are promised.

The horn harmonies are tight, as is the rollicking second-line rhythm. A grand marshal’s whistle sounds in time with the beat, propelling the tune forward and offering the verisimilitude of a parade route through the Tremé.

“Raid on the Mingus House Party” is a take on Mingus’s frenetic “Boogie Stop Shuffle.” The section playing is marked at times by measured discipline and at other times by the wonderful chaos unique to a large ensemble’s collective improvisation. Gregory Agid’s clarinet solo — with its big, rounded, almost-throwback sound and its simultaneous smoothness and stylistic strain — is most impressive here.

Following the feverish Mingus-inspired tune, Marsalis and co. slow things down with “Mboya’s Midnight Cocktail,” a sketch-like interlude dedicated to Mboya Kenyatta Marsalis, Delfeayo’s younger brother (the second-youngest of the Marsalis sons—the youngest is Jason, a drummer) who is autistic and, according to Delfeayo, likes to get all dressed up and hit the town from time to time. Mboya has served as Delfeayo’s muse before; he can be credited for inspiring his older brother to found the Uptown Music Theatre, a musical theater training program for New Orleans youth.

It’s only a matter of time before we find ourselves in the office of one “Dr. Hardgroove”—the band’s done us the courtesy of arranging an appointment. Dedicated to the late master trumpeter Roy Hargrove, who had ties to several of the Marsalis brothers, “Dr. Hardgroove,” is the type of practitioner who dispenses medicine for the soul consisting principally of unadulterated, undiluted funk.

The baritone lines are as bouncy as the rhythmic chord-fills issuing from the Fender Rhodes electric piano. Dr. Hardgroove’s office may be located in New Orleans, but you wouldn’t necessarily know it. This funk-infused groove could be a part of any region’s treatment regimen.

Not so for the next tune, an exalted take on the Soul Rebels’ “Let Your Mind Be Free,” which again bears the unmistakable musical signature of the Crescent City.

On an album that celebrates the joy of simply being alive and playing music, it’s this tune that brims with the most concentrated joyfulness; it’s the type of tune perfect for a college band to perform at halftime of the Bayou Classic. There wouldn’t be a single backside in a single Superdome seat.

While Marsalis leads, UJO is not a band that revolves around him as a soloist; the power is in the collective and its connection to New Orleans and its music. That’s literally all that matters here. There is no pretension, no affectation, no pseudo-intellectual angle. It’s humble, joyful music to get you happy, and it comes at a perfect time.