This weekend's lineup of Twin Cities Jazz Festival events got off to a rollicking start last night when, over the dinner hour, Chicago bluesman extraordinaire Big George Jackson and his band slung their gutbucket blues at a jovial crowd on Peavey Plaza. Later, inside Orchestra Hall, trombonist Delfeayo Marsalis presided over a spirited tribute to Duke Ellington called Such Sweet Thunder, featuring the luminous virtuosity of his much more famous older brother, Branford.
Delfeayo Marsalis is no musical slouch himself. For the evening’s festivities, Delfeayo reworked Such Sweet Thunder, Duke Ellington’s so-called Shakespeare Suite—a collection of twelve compositions inspired by various Shakespearean characters and sonnets—by distilling the arrangement down from a fifteen-piece band to an octet and reordering the original sequence of the pieces. According to Phil Schaap, jazz curator for New York’s Lincoln Center and emcee of the event, last night’s performance was the first time the Shakespeare Suite has been played in its entirety since the Duke did it back in 1956. So, in addition to the novelty of having two of the brothers Marsalis onstage at once, there was also some history being made.
The title Such Sweet Thunder is taken from a line by Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream: “I never heard so musical a discord, such sweet thunder.” The twelve compositions in the suite are what Ellington called “portrait pieces” or “tone parallels,” which use a particular person or thing as a launching point for the music. Emotionally, pieces in the suite run the gamut from a sad and soulful sigh for the plight of Romeo and Juliet, to the ragtime-flavored “Lady Mac,” to the (ego)maniacal frenzy of such pieces “Hank Cinq” (or “Hank Sank,”) inspired by Henry V, and “Sonnet for Caesar.”
The relationship between the music and text in these pieces isn’t necessarily direct or obvious, but the pieces stand on their own and contain frequent echoes of Ellington’s more famous work. In its original form, the suite takes about forty-five minutes to play, but Delfeayo Marsalis added about an hour to the playing time by incorporating frequent solos, particularly by his older brother, who demonstrated several times why he is one of the reigning kings of contemporary jazz. Delfeayo even joked that some of the pieces weren’t too difficult to arrange because all he had to do was write, “Let Branford do what he does.” And what Branford does is play with such fluidity, grace, and speed—on both alto and soprano saxophone—that it often feels as if he’s compressing time and space, reaching back into history to grab the roots of jazz while simultaneously pulling various bizarre and exquisite sounds from the future. After one particularly audacious solo that went places Duke Ellington never dreamed of, Delfeayo, noting that Ellington was a big fan of improvisation, just shook his head and said, “The Duke would have been proud.”
If you missed last night’s show, you can catch Delfeayo again on August 5, when he closes out Sommerfest with A Tribute to Count Basie, featuring legendary sax-man James Moody.