Ellis Marsalis was in fine spirits, relaxed and ready, as he settled in behind the Steinway B at Esplanade Studios earlier this year.
Joined on vibraphone by his son Jason, he was making an album for Newvelle Records, the audiophile vinyl-only label, as part of a special series called The New Orleans Collection. The sessions took place on Feb. 17 and 18, three weeks before the first reported case of COVID-19 in New Orleans. By April 1, the coronavirus had claimed the life of Ellis, at 85.
For All We Know, the album that Ellis and Jason Marsalis made for Newvelle, now stands as the capstone to a legendary jazz career, though the easy rapport between father and son also give it the air of a conversation around the table.
WBGO is proud to premiere a video from the sessions: a sauntering take on “Orchid Blue,” an Ellis original that Jason had previously recorded with him (on drums) for the 1998 Columbia album Twelve’s It. It’s the closing track on For All We Know.
Like the other albums in The New Orleans Collection — new efforts by living legends Irma Thomas, Jon Cleary and Little Freddie King — For All We Know was produced by Ben Chace. Among its executive producers is pianist Elan Mehler, a founder of Newvelle, who remembers the Marsalis sessions fondly.
“Ellis would wander over to the piano and play some tracks solo as engineers were still moving through the hall,” Mehler tells WBGO, “and we’d quietly try to freeze everyone in place and catch what he was doing. He’d meander through improvisations that would turn into medleys of standards and old folk tunes. Then Jason would come down from the control booth and they’d dig into some of Ellis’ trickiest compositions from the ‘60s. He seemed to be able to effortlessly make the transition.”
Along with “Orchid Blue” and the title track, played as an exquisite solo piano piece, the album features a James Black tune, “Magnolia Triangle,” and an interpretation of the spiritual “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen.” On one track, “Discipline Meets The Family,” Jason’s daughter Marley joins on additional mallet percussion and piano, briefly turning the session into a three-generation affair.
Ellis Marsalis is remembered, of course, as one of jazz’s most famous patriarchs. In addition to Jason, his sons include Branford, Delfeayo and Wynton — who, speaking on Anderson Cooper 360°, remembered his father as “pure consciousness. He was purely about the music. He loved people and humanity and he had a very broad vision of the world.”
Two years ago, Wynton posted footage of his quintet, featuring Ellis and Branford, rehearsing “Orchid Blue” for the Jazz in Marciac festival.
In comments recorded by Mehler for Newvelle the day before the recording session, Ellis Marsalis recalled the frontier era of modern jazz in New Orleans, when gigs in that vein were few and far between. “We would sometimes play at each other’s house and work on some songs that were original, that we were writing,” he said. “In a way, as musicians, it sort of reminded me of sandlot football. You do it because it’s communal.”
For All We Know is now available on vinyl as part of The New Orleans Collection from Newvelle Records.
(A previous version of this post misattributed “Magnolia Triangle” as an Ellis Marsalis composition; the song was composed by New Orleans drummer James Black.)