Thursday, March 2, 2017

With 'Make America Great Again,' Delfeayo Marsalis knows how to swing to political as well as musical rhythms

Delfeayo Marsalis, the first family of jazz's trombone-playing member and perhaps its wittiest, presents the Uptown Jazz Orchestra, a crackerjack New Orleans outfit, in one of the great jazz theme albums of 2016.

"Make America Great Again" (Troubadour Jass) has become a slogan that, fortunately, I'm no longer able to hear without Marsalis' tune running through my head, as well as the accents of Wendell Pierce's sly, warm narration. "A melting pot of diversity fighting a juggernaut of adversity" is a phrase from the text that can well sum up the wry interpretation of the Trump slogan that's just one of the pluses in this generously proportioned program.

It's keyed to fine arrangements played with spirit and ensemble focus by the Uptown Jazz Orchestra of New Orleans, with frequent support from the women's voices of the Uptown Music Theatre Choir.

Delfeayo: Bringing it from New Orleans
The disc opens with a tangy arrangement for winds only of the national anthem. The musical coordinates are soon centered on the Crescent City, however, with the effervescent "Snowball," which gives way to the saucy, stinging lines of "Second Line." Gregory Agid's clarinet soloing on the latter number is typical of the zest and ingenuity of the widely distributed soloing.

The leader is significantly in the forefront with his solo in "Dream on Robben," a tribute to Nelson Mandela, featuring Cynthia Liggins Thomas' evocative vocal. The ballad, both forceful and lyrical, returns as an instrumental to conclude the disc.

There are several well-known "covers," including an ingenious adaptation of Aaron Copland's "Fanfare for the Common Man." Kyle Roussel has a splendid piano showcase on "All of Me," and Marsalis' trombone is heard from once again in Hoagy Carmichael's "Skylark."  Black pride, connecting the African-American experience on both continents essential to black history, is richly invoked in the rap of Dee-1, backed by the UMTC, of "Back to Africa."

The constant hint in New Orleans music—that audience participation is part of the aesthetic—is given prominence in "Put Your Right Foot Forward." You might find it difficult to resist the invitation.

This release combines pride and the assertion of America's need to rectify its historical injustices with a smoothly integrated forthrightness about the joys of swinging leisure pursuits. "Make America Great Again" takes the serious stuff seriously, but goes on a lark (not only Hoagy Carmichael's) at the same time. It's a rare achievement.