Winnipeg's Jazz Magazine

May/June 2014: Jimmy Greene

Ellis Marsalis

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Ellis Marsalis carries one of the most famous surnames in jazz. He, along with his sons Branford, Wynton, Delfeayo and Jason, are the only family to win a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters Award, the highest honour awarded by the United States for jazz. While Ellis is a brilliant pianist in his own right, he has also established an impressive legacy as a jazz educator, having helped shape the careers of many notable musicians, including Terence Blanchard, Donald Harrison, Harry Connick, Jr, and Nicholas Payton.

Growing up in New Orleans, Ellis was surrounded by a rich tradition of Dixieland and rhythm & blues from an early age. However, his focus turned towards the progressive sound of bebop, and he recorded with modernist drummer Ed Blackwell and famed altoist Cannonball Adderley, amongst others. In the 1960s, Ellis began his career as a jazz educator in a time where there was little to no existing methodology for teaching jazz in the classroom. Amongst many accomplishments, he would go on to start a jazz program at the University of New Orleans.

As a pianist, Ellis combines a virtuosic technique with a soulful approach, reflecting his deep understanding of the jazz tradition. His discography showcases him in a variety of settings, including several solo albums, and he has a chameleon-like ability to play tastefully in any context. Some of my favourite albums include his trio outing Heart of Gold (with Ray Brown and Billy Higgins), on which he demonstrates a straight-ahead, hard-swinging style in the style of Oscar Peterson or Gene Harris. I also love his duo album with his son Branford, titled Loved Ones, which showcases his masterful sense of orchestration and texture at the piano.

Ellis Marsalis brings his magic to the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre on Friday, June 20. He is a living legend that should not be missed!

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