Ellis Marsalis might best be characterized as half a household name. Thursday evening, sharing the bill with Wynton Marsalis before a full house atRoyce Hall, UCLA, he offered clear evidence of the talent that has been reflected in his more celebrated sons.
Marsalis pere is a pianist steeped in several traditions. As one might expect of a musician who devotes much of his time to teaching, he seemed thoroughly in touch with a variety of idioms, from the bebop of his opener, Bud Powell's "Hallucinations" to the swing-era style and even-keel rhythms he applied to "I Cover the Waterfront." Even more engaging was the harmonic imagination he brought to "Lush Life," a complex song in its original form rendered even more subtly intricate in his treatment.
Marsalis the composer was represented in "Homecoming," a slow and seductively melodic work. Later in the set he was joined by Wynton for the only father-and-son appearance of the evening, aptly dedicated to their hometown as they sustained a quietly persuasive mood in Hoagy Carmichael's "New Orleans."
For his two closing numbers, "Love for Sale" and "Moment's Notice," the senior Marsalis borrowed his son's bassist and drummer, Bob Hurst and Jeff Watts, rounding out a well-planned and executed set.
After intermission it was Wynton's quartet all the way, with Marcus Roberts taking over at the piano. Though he included one or two originals, the trumpeter has been concentrating more on standards since the departure of his saxophonist brother Branford left him without a front-line partner to round out the thematic statements. After a cup-muted expedition through the exotica of "Caravan," he seemed liberated by the more chordally oriented "Out of Nowhere," and by a well-planned "April in Paris" that vacillated between 3/4 and 4/4.
The Marsalis backup team with its elastic rhythms has everything under tight control, despite the overall impression of looseness. Wynton remains a master both in technique and of emotion-laden conviction. His use of the old Louis Armstrong theme "Sleepy Time Down South," employing understatement and leading to a low-key finale, was at once a reminder of his awareness of jazz history and evidence of his skill in building on the groundwork laid by his forebears.
Taken on its own terms, the Marsalis Quintet-Minus-One succeeded individually and collectively; yet there had to be moments when one wished that his elder brother were still around, horn in hand. Branford, where is thy sting?