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Album Review: Delfeayo Marsalis' 'Sweet Thunder'

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delfeayo marsalis sweet thunder
Courtesy of Troubador Jass Records
Comparing works like trombonist Delfeayo Marsalis' Sweet Thunder (Troubador Jass, 2011) to the original Duke Ellington suite Such Sweet Thunder poses common problems for the music critic. Could one be meaningfully called better than the other? I would imagine that most contemporary recordings of Stravinsky, aided not only by modern audio technology but by decades of entrenchment in the classical repertoire, far outmatch the precision of the original performances.

But let's be fair: Sweet Thunder is not a strict interpretation of Ellington's original score. Marsalis shrinks—or perhaps consolidates—Duke's instrumentation significantly, from big band to octet, and there are significant formal modifications to all but two of Duke's compositions.

Ellington’s Such Sweet Thunder was originally commissioned by the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Ontario, and was the composer’s tribute to William Shakespeare. Each movement is dedicated to a work by the great playwright, including “Sonnet to Hank Cinq,” which refers to Henry V, and “Sonnet in Search of a Moor,” written for Othello.

The suite was a natural choice for Marsalis, whose interest in literature motivated masters degree work in the subject at the University of New Orleans and a thesis on Duke and the Bard at the University of Louisville. There are meaningful nods to Shakespearean technique in both Ellington and Marsalis' approaches to the material. Ellington mirrored the 10-syllable, 14-line form of the sonnet in four of his pieces, to which Marsalis adds a solo section at the traditional location for the volta, the shift in a sonnet’s direction.

Marsalis' attention to literary and musical detail is expounded in perhaps the most comprehensive liner notes I've ever encountered in a jazz recording—a poster-sized foldout tracing each piece's inspiration and including critical reviews. To be sure, there is a keen mind and a historical sensitivity behind Sweet Thunder.

Marsalis' trombone playing is solid, his tone full and his lines tasteful. His technique has never been flashy, but it is certainly expressive. Among the other featured soloists, there are moments of Ellingtonian intimacy and contemporary high-energy jazz. The best example of the latter may be Mark Shim's blistering solo on “Circle of Fourths,” which Marsalis describes as “a good reason to play fast in different keys!” Contrast this with the cutesy melody statement of “Up & Down, Up & Down” and you'll get an idea of the album's breadth. 1Raoul Hernandez, Austin Chronicle

Release Date:

January 18th, 2011 on Troubador Jass Records

Track Listing:

  1. Such Sweet Thunder
  2. Sonnet for Sister Kate
  3. Sonnet to Hanki Cinq
  4. Half the Fun
  5. Up & Down, Up & Down
  6. Madness in Great Ones
  7. Star-Crossed Lovers
  8. Sonnet in Search of a Moor
  9. The Telecasters
  10. Sonnet for Caesar
  11. Lady Mac
  12. Circle of Fourths


  • Branford Marsalis - soprano sax
  • Mark Gross - alto sax
  • Jason Marshall - baritone sax, bass clarinet
  • Tiger Okoshi - trumpet
  • Mulgrew Miller - piano
  • Reginald Veal - bass
  • Winard Harper - drums
  • Victor Goines - tenor sax
  • Jason Marsalis - drums & percussion
  • Mark Shim - tenor sax
  • Victor "Red" Atkins - piano
  • David Pulphus - bass
  • Charnett Moffett - bass
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