Marsalis family band hits the road

Special to The Times

You can count on the Marsalis family to stay in the spotlight, one way or the other. The latest move toward center stage features every one of its talented musical members, performing together in concert for the first time.

Inspired by a New Orleans concert in August 2001 celebrating patriarch Ellis Marsalis' retirement from teaching at the University of New Orleans, a tour, a PBS special, a recording and a DVD are now in the works. The tour, which will make stops at eight East Coast venues (but none on the West Coast), kicks off on Feb. 23. It features Ellis Marsalis on piano, with sons Branford on saxophones, Wynton on trumpet, Delfeayo on trombone and Jason on drums, and the only non-family member, Reginald Veal on bass.

West Coast fans will have to be content with reproduced performances by this celebrated band of brothers and their father. The first entry is a CD chronicling the 2001 concert, titled "The Marsalis Family: A Jazz Celebration," scheduled for release on Branford's new independent record label, Marsalis Music, on Feb. 4. Harry Connick Jr., a longtime Marsalis associate, makes a guest appearance.

It was, says Delfeayo, a performance that "reflected our family collectively and individually." Branford agrees, adding that "everybody came to play the music as well as they possibly could play it."

A PBS presentation of the same concert, premiering on Feb. 20, visually illuminates those thoughts. And, finally, there will be a DVD version of the same performance, scheduled for spring, which will undoubtedly include all sorts of additional bits and pieces of outtakes, interviews, etc., not on the CD or the special.

Less visibly, rumors continue to persist that Wynton Marsalis may be moving from his longtime Columbia Records home. It seems unlikely, however, that he will land at his brother's indie label, which thus far has released, besides the "Jazz Celebration" CD, only Branford's own latest album, "Footsteps of Our Fathers."

Sing, man, sing!

Male jazz singing is on the wane? That's what many of the critics are saying. But it won't be the case next week in the Southland. On four consecutive nights, jazz fans will have a sequence of stylistically far-ranging opportunities to survey decades of prime Y-chromosome vocalizing.

Start with the pairing of Tony Bennett and Frank Sinatra Jr. on Monday and Tuesday at the Cerritos Center. The still-swinging, seventysomething Bennett and the No. 1 Sinatra son (who sounds remarkably like a youthful version of his father), working in the same room. Info: (800) 300-8500.

On Tuesday, Andy Bey opens a six-night run at the Jazz Bakery. And if you haven't yet checked out this remarkably inventive, musically entertaining veteran singer-pianist, now's the time to do so. Info: (310) 271-9039.

On Wednesday at the Cerritos Center's Sierra Room, 19-year-old Peter Cincotti makes his Los Angeles debut. Praised by the New York Times, Dustin Hoffman and Regis Philbin, the youthful singer-pianist, who works convincingly with the Great American Songbook, has already had a successful run at the Algonquin Room and appeared in the off-Broadway musical "Our Sinatra." Info: (800) 300-8500.

Also on Wednesday, as well as Thursday, the Four Freshmen make a rare appearance at Catalina Bar & Grill. True, this line of singers is no closer to the original Freshmen than the touring Drifters are to their first incarnation. But the high, soaring harmonies that impacted ensembles ranging from the Beach Boys to Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young are still present in hits such as "It's a Blue World." Info: (323) 466-2210.

And on Thursday, the Southland's resident peacock of the blues, Ernie Andrews, bring his stylish, effervescent vocals to the opening of a new series of jazz programs in the American Brasserie of the Crowne Plaza L.A. Airport Hotel. Not a bad week for a jazz genre that clearly is not nearly as moribund as some of the commentators would have us believe.

Jazz in print

The jazz books keep coming, noble efforts to verbally explain this mysterious art. For the most part, it is the biographies that provide the greatest insights, measuring the everyday complexities of life against the joys and pain of spontaneous musical improvisation. Here are some of the latest arrivals:

"Drummin' Men, the Heartbeat of Jazz: The Bebop Years" by Burt Korall (Oxford University Press). This is a follow-up to the equally verbosely titled "Drummin' Men, the Heartbeat of Jazz: The Swing Years." As in the earlier book, Korall, himself a drummer, focuses on primary figures: Jo Jones, Sid Catlett, Kenny Clarke, Max Roach, Art Blakey, Roy Haynes and others, via an encyclopedic array of data. Fascinating as the book is for its musical perceptiveness, however, the structure, in which Korall deals with each figure via biographical material continually interrupted by commentary inserts from musicians and others, makes for a reading experience that rarely approaches his descriptions of the rhythmic flow of a smoothly swinging jazz drummer.

"So What: The Life of Miles Davis" by John Szwed (Simon & Schuster). Yale professor Szwed has written the first new biography since Davis' death a decade ago. Meticulously detailing the byzantine patterns of an enormously creative personality, he has combined the authoritative qualities of an academic biography with the gossipy anecdotes of a pop profile. But Davis always fascinates, even when -- as in this case -- his music too often plays a supporting role, superseded by Szwed's emphasis on the ever-present impact of his dark and damaging narcissism.

"Art Blakey: Jazz Messenger" by Leslie Gourse (Schirmer Trade Books). Gourse may be the busiest jazz biographer, with previous books surveying the lives of Sarah Vaughan, Carmen McRae, Billie Holiday and Dizzy Gillespie, among others. As with her other books, the Blakey biography is a workmanlike effort, clearly the product of extensive interviews and research. Gourse's book shows a devotion to detail that almost but not quite compensates for her relative lack of insights.

Critic's mistake

Never try to do important work at too early an hour. In my commentary on the jazz Grammy nominations Wednesday, I mistakenly suggested that Etta Jones is not a jazz singer. Wrong. I obviously was thinking of Etta James.

Jones, in fact, was a fine jazz artist who died in October 2001, the day "Etta Jones Sings Lady Day" was released. That record fully deserves to be present in the jazz vocal album category.

Riffs

Jazz recordings represented one of only two shining lights in the dark picture of 2002's dismal CD sales figures, according to Nielsen SoundScan. While album sales overall dropped around 10%, jazz and country music displayed slight increases. This was the second year in a row in which jazz bucked the downward trend by coming up with improving sales figures.... Dillard University in New Orleans is organizing a permanent, salaried jazz orchestra. The 21-member ensemble, named the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra, will be directed by trumpeter Irvin Mayfield and loosely patterned after the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. The inaugural season kicks off in February at the Crescent City's famous music venue, Tipitina's.

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