JAZZ REVIEWS : Ellis Marsalis Plays a Tribute to James Black

Because his two-night engagement was booked at the last minute, only a handful of fans showed up on Wednesday night at Vine St. Bar & Grill to see pianist Ellis Marsalis--the father of Wynton and Branford.

Long known in New Orleans as a respected educator, the elder Marsalis belatedly came to fame as a pianist through the achievements of his various sons. Not surprisingly, No. 1 son Branford was on hand Thursday as a sideman with his father's quartet.

Ellis Marsalis had brought with him some of the music of James Black, a New Orleans composer whose works he played in the 1960s and '70s. In fact, he's in town to record an album in tribute to Black, who died in 1988.

It was evident that Branford and his two "Tonight Show" cohorts, Robert Hurst on bass and Jeff (Tain) Watts on drums, were only vaguely familiar with the music and had not rehearsed. Playing tenor sax and later soprano, Branford seemed to be learning as he went along, picking up on the ingenious lines of Black's "Magnolia Triangle" (in 5-4 time), "Little Boy Man" and others.

The interaction among the musicians coalesced as they worked up a fine head of steam, with Ellis Marsalis in a restrained mood. Watts contributed a virtuosic solo with a quasi street-parade beat on "Mozartin'," a quirky piece by another talented New Orleans writer, Alvin Batiste.

Next time Ellis Marsalis comes to town, he deserves more advance notice.

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