Ellis Marsalis is a fine piano player and educator. The latter is evidenced by the musical growth of his sons (Branford, Wynton, Delefayo and Jason) and the continuing interest he displays in working with young musicians.
The last quality was on display Tuesday morning and afternoon when the senior Marsalis visited the Buffalo Academy for Visual and Performing Arts and Enterprise Charter School before dropping in at the Colored Musicians Club for a spell.
Marsalis' piano artistry was showcased as part of a trio Tuesday night for an appreciative albeit surprisingly compact crowd. Joined by his son Jason on drums and bassist Jason Stewart, the pianist played his way through a number of jazz standards with a harmonic and melodic palette colored by the kind of musical modernism prevalent during the late 1950s through the early 1970s.
While he did touch on some tunes prior to that era (including a delightfully understated take on Duke Ellington's "Just Squeeze Me" and King Oliver's "Dr. Jazz"), Marsalis seemed most comfortable with tunes by Herbie Hancock ("Dolphin Dance" and "Tell Me a Bedtime Story") and John Lewis, the former leader of the Modern Jazz Quartet ("Django" and an excerpt from the "La Ronde: Suite").
Most songs started out with a solo piano interlude as Marsalis the elder set the mood prior to being joined by his band mates. Stewart was solid all evening, but the younger Marsalis was a revelation. At first he was relegated to playing with brushes while his father engaged in some ruminative passage work on "Just Squeeze Me" and "Old Folks," but by the time the trio reached that excerpt from Lewis' "La Ronde: Suite," there were moments where Jason unveiled a startling command of percussive coloration during a truly impressive solo.
Opening up for the Marsalis Trio was pianist John Krown, a Long Island native who ended up in New Orleans after a brief stay at the University at Buffalo. Krown also spent some impressive years backing up guitarist/violinist Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown and a fistful of other notables.
Where Ellis Marsalis played it relatively cool and comfortable, Krown showcased the kind of romping, blues-based piano espoused by such New Orleans keyboard giants as Professor Longhair, "Fats" Domino and James Booker.
He began with standards like "Keep On Gwine," "Tipitina" and "Frankie and Johnny," aiming for a deceptively simple rumba line in the left hand while adding the appropriate melodic filigree with the right. By the time he closed out his portion of the program, Krown had warmed his fingers up to the point where his ending medley of "Big Chief" and "Mess Around" was truly impressive.
Ellis Marsalis Trio
Part of the Big Easy in Buffalo series Tuesday night in the UB Center for the Arts.