Now trombonist Delfeayo Marsalis, with help from his brothers Branford and Jason (and other fine musicians), presents a tribute of similar merit. While Ellington and co-composer Billy Strayhorn capture the essence of Shakespeare’s characters in short, crisp compositions, Marsalis elaborates on their work, preserving the moods and characterization while extending each tune into a longer piece of music (sometimes by several minutes).
Marsalis’ broad vision seeks to explore the many musical possibilities suggested by Ellington’s compositions. Ellington’s “Sonnet in Search of a Moor” (i.e., Othello) gets transformed by Marsalis into the six-minutes-longer “Sonnet in Search of Moor,” with the play on words perhaps being the perfect description of the album. Marsalis’ version is recorded at a faster tempo than the original. It features the melody that’s played by the bass in the middle of the original; here, though, the melody is inserted at the beginning of the song, beautifully played on the saxophone.
Some tunes seem to work better on the original. The meditative mood of Ellington’s piano on “Sonnet for Caesar” could never be improved upon. At the same time, Marsalis’ “Lady Mac” now has a more gospel-tinged sound; I prefer it to the original. His “Sonnet to Hank Cinq” (i.e., Henry V, also known as Prince Hal) benefits from a swinging in-character extension of music lasting three minutes longer than the original.
When it comes to a project such as this, it’s not possible to recommend the new one over the old one, but it’s my pleasure to recommend them both in equal measure. Marsalis has had the audacity to stand on the shoulders of a giant, and stands nearly as tall.
Late Nights & Early Mornings by Marsha Ambrosius
Marsha Ambrosius, formerly of the widely beloved duo Floetry, has released a solo album of solid, often beautiful music. Floetry’s career stalled a few years ago, and since then, the British-born Ambrosius has endeavored to develop a solo career. It appears that she has succeeded.
The album presents a wide range of emotions but leans toward the bitter and depressed. It contains at least three potential classics: the romantic candles-and-bath oils-and-whatnot slow jam title track “Late Nights & Early Mornings,” the plaintive “Far Away” and the inspired “The Break Up Song.” The last one has the potential to become “the” breakup song that women listen to when breaking up.
My problem with contemporary R&B is that it’s generally allowed to be about only one subject: relationships. Late Nights is no different. If you like that, then this album is for you. One thing Ambrosius does do well is consider many possible relationship angles.
I must question the obvious radio pandering of the first single, “Hope She Cheats on You (With a Basketball Player).” I find the song shallow and vaguely offensive. It’s beneath her as an artist. I mean, all right, it’s hard to get noticed out here, so a song like that will and has gotten some attention. But in the grand scheme of things, being cheated on with a basketball player is preferable to being cheated on with, say, your own brother, some guy who works at the deli or a member of al-Qaida. As the comedians say, am I right? Am I right?
The biggest surprise on this album is a fabulous reworking (billed as a “remix”) of “Butterflies,” the song she wrote for Michael Jackson (Ambrosius provided backup vocals on the original). Ambrosius’ version is catchy, up-tempo and worthy of the original recording.
Paul Devlin is a regular contributor to The Root. Follow him on Twitter.
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Correction: The authorship of “Butterflies” was erroneously attributed to Michael Jackson in the original version. This was corrected after a reader pointed out the error.