Barring the 1982 album Fathers and Sons and a brief and legendary pairing during the '80s, the Marsalis' have largely avoided playing together. It is almost as if despite becoming some of the most technically proficient and creative forces in music, appearing together would relegate them to a freakish gimmick or biological fluke and negate all their hard work as individuals. The truth is, though, that the public has always enjoyed and often demanded that the Marsalis clan appear together, and it is an exciting thing musically when they do. Wynton Marsalis' early recordings with his brother, such as Black Codes (From the Underground), are perhaps some of his most revelatory. Before he completely dedicated himself to single-handedly rebuilding the historical foundations of jazz, he was freed-up to investigate Ornette Coleman, late-period John Coltrane, and at least evince some classical notions into his jazz recordings. Perhaps Branford Marsalis benefited most from the eventual breakup with his brother, allowing him to find his voice exploring the realm of progressive popular music and world influences with Sting -- which led directly back to some of the most lively and relevant jazz recordings of the '80s and early '90s. However, it is legend in his own time Ellis Marsalis who started it all and whose tireless and subtle guidance inspired not only his sons, but many of their contemporaries to equally creative heights. All of this is evident in the live concert featured on The Marsalis Family: A Jazz Celebration, marking the first time that every Marsalis has performed together. Planned as a tribute to Ellis at the time of his retirement from teaching at New Orleans University in August of 2001, the live performance features the family patriarch alone at the piano as well as with his more outspoken sons. Given Wynton and Branford's idiosyncratic penchant for Ellington-influenced blues, odd time signatures, and in-your-face contrapuntal retorts, it is interesting to contrast Ellis' more laid-back approach, which brings to mind Bill Evans, Tommy Flanagan, and Dave Brubeck. Drummer Jason is a competent roil of energy, Delfeayo holds his own against fellow trombonist Lucien Barbarin, and honorary Marsalis bassist Roland Guerin rounds out the ensemble. Stylistically, the album flows from straight-ahead standards such as Ellis' solo spot on "Surrey With the Fringe on Top" to more progressive affairs like Branford and Wynton's reprisal of their avant-shared improvisation on "Cain and Abel" -- off the saxophonists' 1991 album The Beautyful Ones Are Not Born Yet. The ever-jovial Harry Connick, Jr. also makes an appearance to take a few humorous jabs at his former mentor as well as revisit his barroom roots on "Saint James Infirmary." However, the highlight of the concert has to be the album-closer, "Struttin' With Some Barbecue." Everyone, not the least Wynton, who opens the track with some inspired Buddy Bolden-like call and response, comes alive here with obvious love for their hometown traditions that have served them so well.
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AllMusic Review by Matt Collar