The opening salvo of Delfeayo Marsalis' extraordinary performance Friday at the Blue Room indicated the evening would be full of edifying entertainment. The trombonist's bold unaccompanied solo on a saucy version of Professor Longhair's "Mardi Gras in New Orleans" paid homage to jazz's rich tradition even as it pointed to new possibilities. Over the course of two sets, Marsalis and his cohorts affirmed the ongoing vitality of straight-ahead jazz.
Marsalis is a younger sibling of the better-known Branford and Wynton Marsalis. He possesses both the professorial air of Wynton and the adventurous streak associated with Branford. Marsalis alluded to the challenges of being part of a famous family of musicians in his introduction to "Simon's Journey," a selection from his 1992 debut album Pontius Pilate's Decision.
"If you have any crosses to bear or if you have any older brothers, this is for you," Marsalis said.
Marsalis' lighthearted comment belied the composition's serious intent. Marsalis, trumpeter Sean Jones, pianist Richard Johnson, bassist Jeremy Boettcher and drummer Winard Harper made strong statements on the complex piece, but guest saxophonist Bobby Watson's thoughtful quote of the gospel hymn "Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?" provided one of the night's most impassioned moments.
Kansas City's Watson may have claimed top honors on the piece, but each man constantly strove to outperform his band mates. While no one indulged in selfish grandstanding, a sense of friendly competition elicited a steady stream of remarkable solos. The frenetic pace made much of the first set seem like the jazz equivalent of extreme sports. The breathtaking tempos showcased each man's athletic musicality.
Bandleader Marsalis possesses an impeccable command of his instrument. The execution of his inspired ideas was no less striking. Yet the inherently dulcet tone of the trombone put him at a competitive disadvantage. The audience, which peaked at about 125, favored the brash work of Jones. He may not be a household name, but the 32-year-old is one of the most influential jazz trumpeters of his generation. Correctly characterized by Marsalis as "a gentlemen who always takes over the gig no matter what," Jones' technical prowess and fearless explorations were astonishing.
Johnson's sensual solo during a lush ballad led to an amusing exchange between a patron and Marsalis. A man shouted "you're making love" at the pianist, to which Marsalis replied, "you can can't be in a hurry all the time." A couple of Harper's machine gun-style solos would have impressed fans of heavy metal. The compact man ricocheted like an electrified pinball behind his drum kit. Bassist Boettcher had little room to maneuver, but a gleeful grin rarely left his face.
After a break that lasted nearly an hour, the second set began with three Charlie Parker compositions. Not surprisingly, Watson dominated the material written by the iconic Kansas City saxophonist. With a less attentive audience and decidedly more relaxed musicians, the transformed atmosphere of the Blue Room resembled the freewheeling late-night jam sessions at the nearby Mutual Musicians Foundation. Marsalis regained control with an emotionally devastating rendition of the standard "You Don't Know What Love Is." His plaintive solo on the ballad silenced even the rowdiest spectators.
Branford and Wynton make frequent appearances in the area but Friday's engagement was Delfeayo Marsalis' Kansas City debut. His performance revealed that he's no less masterful than his brothers.