Stepping in his spotless white shoes, while tossing out blues riffs on his trombone -- one-handed, yet -- Delfeayo Marsalis was many things Saturday night at the Montalvo Arts Center in Saratoga: entertainer, band leader, musical tour guide. And English teacher: "And now we turn to the sonnets," he told his audience, which ate out of his hand at the Carriage House Theatre.
Marsalis' listeners were there to hear his take on "Such Sweet Thunder," the Shakespeare-inspired suite by Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn, from 1956-57.
Titled after the famous line from "A Midsummer Night's Dream" -- "I never heard so musical a discord, such sweet thunder" -- the suite has been re-scored for octet by Marsalis, who recorded it on a 2011 release ("Sweet Thunder: Duke & Shak") and performs it again Tuesday in Berkeley.
It consists of a dozen piquant, musical vignettes based on characters from Shakespeare, four of them mimicking the form of a sonnet. "And if you weren't paying attention in English class," Marsalis told the crowd -- saxophonist Mark Gross, grinning, shot his hand in the air -- a sonnet consists of 14 lines, each with 10 syllables. The Ellingtonian innovation was to devise a series of musical sonnets, each built around 10-note themes, repeated 14 times.
Then the octet played "Sonnet To Hank Cinq," Duke's nickname for King Henry V.
Over a chattering rhythm, it features a wide-leaping 10-note trombone theme; kind of
Back and forth it went: The tempo changes, Ellington once wrote, reflect "the changes of pace and the map as a result of wars" in the time of good King Henry.
New Orleans-bred Marsalis (he's 47, a younger brother of Wynton and Branford Marsalis) is the perfect guy to take on "Such Sweet Thunder." Descended from bassist Wellman Braud, a great uncle, who played with Ellington in the '20s and '30s, Marsalis once wrote a college thesis on Shakespeare and Ellington. Plus, as a player, he has a distinctly Ellingtonian temperament: sophisticated, yet earthy, with plenty of humor.
For his Bay Area dates, Marsalis has recruited several excellent local players to join the octet: pianist Glen Pearson, trumpeter Geechi Taylor and saxophonist Andrew Speight, best known for his alto work, here playing baritone. One had the feeling that it had come together too quickly; Ellington's charts are complicated, and the band was still coming to terms with a bunch of the tunes.
As a result, some of the concert felt like a working rehearsal, with Marsalis coaching (and urging on) the newcomers. Yet the players were so happy to play the music -- and spun off so many buoyant, bright-toned solos -- that the night was its own kind of success. And with so many rarely heard tunes by Ellington and Strayhorn, bookended by a couple of Mardi Gras numbers, one by Professor Longhair -- what's to complain about?
Alto saxophonist Jeff Clayton's solos were ripe as peaches. New Orleans bassist David Pulphus formulated the imperturbable pulse, while veteran drummer Harper -- he can do anything and everything. His solo on "Sonnet in Search of A Moor" (Ellington's tribute to "Othello") drove a straight line through Second Line, hip-hop, bebop and the Nile Valley.
But the master of the night was Gross, Marsalis' right-hand man, his Johnny Hodges. He snake-charmed his way through "Half the Fun" (Ellington's portrait of Cleopatra, missing half the fun because Mark Antony had split the scene) and ascended to a splintering climax on "Madness in Great Ones" (Duke's take on Hamlet). And when Marsalis honored Louis Armstrong with "What a Wonderful World," playing it as tenderly as a lullaby, Gross was right there with him, sweet as banana pudding.
Delfeayo Marsalis Octet,
Performing "Such Sweet Thunder" by Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn
When: 8 p.m. Tuesday
Where: Zellerbach Hall, UC Berkeley
Tickets: $20-$46, 510-642-9988, www.calperfs.berkeley.edu