Trombonist, producer and composer Delfeayo Marsalis has released his first album in years, a re-imagining of the classic Duke Ellington suite, "Such Sweet Thunder." Marsalis' "Sweet Thunder" retools the jazz masterpiece, which was based upon a select band of Shakespearean characters.
Along with brothers Wynton, Branford and Jason Marsalis, Delfeayo has brought together an all-star line-up to the project after years of being a producer and playing with other bands.
Here, Delfeayo talks with The Skanner News about pairing literature with music, stepping back into the limelight and why he wants to give his brothers some real competition.
TSN: What was the deciding factor in choosing to redo Duke Ellington's "Such Sweet Thunder"?
DM: It's a project that's always spoken to me. Once I discovered the original scores, those spoke to me in a different way. It's a project I could really identify with the music, the concept. It's something I felt I could actually contribute to by recording. I would never just record the full album … like that's something Wynton is more interested in -- repertory bands. You take the Ellington score and recreate it as it was originally intended. Maybe change the solos, but not the music itself. I'm not interested in that. This was music I felt could be altered, kind of keep my own individual style, but keep the essentials Ellington had in mind. You can't do that with every piece of music.
TSN: What is it about this piece of music that allows you to do that?
DM: It's one of the only suites of music that has character portrayals for the majority of the recording. For example, in the New Orleans suite, he did a similar thing, but the instrumentation, how should I say, it's more full instrumentation all of the time. In this one, it has more scaled down instrumentation. The way that Ellington orchestrated, it allowed for instrumentation. So for example, with Ellington's songs, the sections will play for more of the song. For this one, he looked at Shakespeare's body of work and I heard he said, well to capture all of what Shakespeare did musically, you'd need a thousand writers writing for a thousand years. That was Ellington's take on it. I think he just said, instead of trying something so monumental, he said let's just creates some character pieces, take some characters from different plays, different portraits, in what he believes to be the portrayal of that individual. That allowed me to say, instead of doing a portrait, let's do a feature film, instead of just saying this is this person's personality, these are some of the events of this person's life. This is why Othello was loved, or why he was feared and how it ended up.
TSN: I'm curious about something. You find that many musicians across genres often take a piece of literature and pair it with music. If you didn't know that the influence for Such Sweet Thunder was Shakespeare, would have you have retooled it differently?
DM: Well, hmmm. Because of the different elements, there would have been differences, but I still would have chosen the project. But certainly knowing that Shakespeare's words influenced the piece put a slightly different twist. Ellington changed a lot of the titles. He would compose a song based on Cleopatra. In fact, Such Sweet Thunder was originally called Cleo. Then in an interview, he said it's supposed to represent the sweet and convincing story that Othello told to Desdemona, then the title ends up being something totally different. I don't think it has to be so literal. I think it's possible in programmatic music … and this actually happened to me in Pontius Pilate's Decision (Marsalis' first album), I actually wrote out to compose a song for Pontius Pilate, it ended up being Nicodemus … you can have one intent and find that something better as far as how you title it or what you come up with. The final result may not be what you wanted initially. But the fact that you have the information assists you in where you're going.
The Skanner News: What made you decide to switch from the producer's chair to playing front and center on your own album?
DM: The short version of the story is, I had a disagreement with my record label RCA and in getting out of that contract, one of the provisions was that I couldn't record on a major label for five or six years. That prevented me from recording as frequently as I would want. So, coupled with the fact that I played with Elvin Jones, and I gave up my own band, to play with Elvin Jones. It was a number of factors that prevented me. Not having major label support slowed me down from being able to record for the last 10 years. Now I said its time. I made my last recording with Elvin and said, 'You know, I need to come out here (to New Orleans).' And the other thing is, I don't think my brothers have a lot of competition, a certain kind of competition. We always compete with each other to outdo in terms of how we produce our records, what they sound like and what the music is. I think that's very important now because I've let them get away with this for too long. So I want to see what they come up with now.
TSN: Is it easy or difficult to work with such talented people as your brothers and also have them as your family?
DM: You know, families have whatever challenges they have. Fortunately when we work together, we have the same goals. An issue I may have with them on a personal level doesn't get in the way when we're working because of what we're trying to accomplish. I think that's across the board with my dad, Branford or Wynton, or Jason, we can always set any personal differences aside. And there is an ease when you know someone all your life. That's very beneficial.
TSN: Did you grow up playing music with them?
DM?: No, We grew up in pairs, so it was Branford and Wynton, they spent a lot of time together, which is why they play together, they play together so well. They grew up doing that. My brother Ellis and I grew up together, but he chose not to pursue music. By the time I really started playing, Branford and Wynton were already in college … not so much the Jackson 5 scenario.
TSN: Tell me a bit about the upcoming tour, I understand you have an actor coming along with you?
DM: The tour we were supposed to do in April we postponed, but we've decided to do was to take the Shakespearean folks that were related to the music and they have such great, some have humor, in others it's kind of serious and others they're playful. We've selected text that gives you a glimpse into how Shakespeare's words may have affected Ellington's music. It's interesting musically, you have a song like "Up and Down, Up and Down" which is based on the character Puck from Midsummer Night's Dream, and when you see the monologue, the character of Puck comes to life and the music mirrors that sound. I think they did an excellent job of portraying the different characters, musically.
TSN: Is that tour postponed indefinitely?
DM: We don't have the dates now, but it's going to be a fall tour. We just did a number of cities and we're going to regroup and do a fall tour.
TSN: What's the response been like?
DM: We had the best response in Orlando. It's been so different and unique, I find that fewer people come out who are fans of Shakespeare, than are fans of Ellington. So fans of Ellington will come and hear lines of Shakespeare and come up and say, 'he wasn't so bad after all.' I think people's experience with Shakespeare is "Oh, we have to sit through this two-hour thing and listen to these big words nobody understands, what's going on?' Kenneth Brown, Jr. does such a fantastic job of bringing every character to life. Even if you don't understand a word, you get the gist of what's going on. The greatest response we've had is going into the schools, and we perform for the students, and that's only because we have a chance to talk directly, have a question and answer. It's interesting to me, that middle school and high school students, emotionally, they will respond, in how they say, this character Puck, it made me feel this emotion and the character of Henry V was different, but inspiring. That's something Ellington was in tune with. It's one thing to write a tune that is serious, but to write something that is both serious and inspiring is something different. And then to write something comedic is different than writing something that is silly. And to capture those emotions is something that is difficult.