Trombonist, bandleader, and member of one of the most royal families in jazz, Delfeayo Marsalis leads his large ensemble, the Uptown Jazz Orchestra in a set of joyous tunes celebrating Mardi Gras and New Orleans. Large is an understatement. The musicians, vocalists, and guests, number thirty in the credits. This may be the “biggest” sound you’ve ever heard emanating from New Orleans as it combines a big band sound with the small combo jazz spirit and the unabashed funk of the city’s brass bands.
One special guest is Delfeayo’s brother, Branford Marsalis, heard on tenor or soprano on three tracks. Other guests include drummer Marvin “Smitty” Smith and vocalists Glen David Andrews, Dr. Brice Miller, and Tonya Boyd-Cannon. Arrangements are by the leader and trumpeter Andrew Baham, who also contributes vocals on select tracks. Even casual fans of NOLA music will recognize much of the material here as the ensemble pays tribute to icons such as Professor Longhair, Earl King, and The Meters among others. Undoubtedly, many will also recall the late Dr. John when listening to “All on a Mardi Gras Day.”
The most recent tune, penned by Delfeayo and trumpeter/vocalist Dr. Brice Smith, the highly celebratory “So New Orleans (2023)” mentions that the parades were halted in 2021 due to the pandemic, the first time since 1979 that the celebrations were canceled in the city. Katrina slowed but did not stop the festivities. The familiar fare begins with one of the most popular Mardi Gras tunes, Al Johnson’s “Carnival Time” with Baham’s vigorous vocal paired with drummer Herlin Riley’s signature street shuffle along with Roderick Paulin’s tenor solo and Mobetta Ledbetter’s (clearly the coolest name in the band) turn on acoustic bass. The band (UJO) is riffing and filling until they blast off with a series of shout choruses. Vocalist Tonya Boyd-Cannon penned the title track along with Delfeayo, taking us uptown to see the parade with assists from Davell Crawford (piano), Arnold Little III (guitar), and Chris Severin (bass). Glen David Andrews’ whistle and vocal along with Branford on tenor imbue the Professor Longhair classic “Big Chief,” composed by Earl King. The band takes on another King tune with “Street Parade,” another feature for Andrews, Little III, Paulin, and Severin. It’s one of the most jump-for-joy, hand-clapping tunes in the set, yet the additional crowd noise is a debatable addition.
“Uptown Boogie” features stellar solos from Delfeayo, Branford on tenor, and Baham on a growling trumpet to give it a small combo feel, a tune that in some ways echoes the late Allen Toussaint. Viewers of the HBO series Treme may recall the meticulous care that goes into sewing the Mardi Gras Indian suits, represented here by the funky treatment the UJO delivers on Willie “Tee” Turbinton’s “New Suit.” Glen David Andrews is in excellent form on “All on Mardi Gras Day” and again with The Meters’ “They All Asked for You,” the latter referencing Lil Wayne and the Army Corps of Engineers.
Another of the newer tunes composed by Delfeayo, “Midnight at the Zulu Ball,” is a purely instrumental, big band offering with a deep, late-night vibe featuring more extensive solos from Khari Allen Lee on alto, his own trombone and the bass-drum tandem of Ledbetter and Smith. There are two versions of the standard “Mardi Gras Mambo,” the first a small ensemble rendering featuring Delfeayo’s infectious trombone with plunger along with the complementary tenor of Paulin and Riley’s creative sticks. The full orchestra reprises the tune to close out the set, taking it at a blistering tempo featuring again Delfeayo’s trombone, soaring soprano from Branford, and thunderous drums from Smith. Maybe just the latter would have sufficed, replaced with an original that offered a more updated take on the Mardi Gras concept. Delfeayo proved his mettle on a few of them.
Whether you celebrate Mardi Gras or not, this is the ideal soundtrack to lift your spirits in a gloomy February.