Jazz and the surname Marsalis are basically one and the same. Whether you talk about the patriarch of the family or his offspring, Marsalis has for decades symbolized the essence of American jazz. Now, Marsalis Music has decided to take some of those who might not be as well-known and place them in a much-deserved spotlight. And one of these musicians is Michael Carvin. Carvin is not one of those out in the front with horn in-hand, blowing it to great applause and acclaim. Nor is he one of the masters of the standup bass. Carvin has been one of the leading jazz drummers for more than three decades. B.B. King, Dizzy Gillespie, and Betty Carter are just some of the people Carvin has performed with, but he is also known as one of the country’s foremost jazz drumming teachers. His own School of Drumming has seen several top-flight musicians emerge, including Billy Martin (not the Yankee skipper but the drummer of Medeski, Martin and Wood). This album celebrates Carvin’s work and veers from the high-tempo jazz that swings and jumps out at you to the softer, more reflective arrangements.
Marsalis Music Honors Michael Carvin kicks off with “I’ll Remember April”, featuring Carvin lightly working the cymbals as saxophonist Marcus Strickland paints a pretty, musical picture. Breezy but still quite tight, the four piece ensemble, which also includes Dezron Douglas on bass and Carlton Holmes on piano, nails this song without going over the top. Carvin is the proverbial straw stirring this jazz concoction, not afraid to give some quick fills but never at the expense of the other players. Douglas and Holmes tend to play off each other while Carvin’s cymbals can be heard in a “rat-a-tat-tat” fashion halfway through the piece. There’s a slight lull just prior to the homestretch, but all is well that ends well. This leads into the slow but catchy, finger-snapping, and swinging “The Lamp Is Low” that seems perfect for Carvin’s talents—not too busy and allowing just enough space for Carvin to put his subtle nuances on the song. Again Strickland makes the most of his time here with Holmes tickling the ivories in all the right places. The quartet revisits this vibe during “In Walked Bud” but it doesn’t seem to be as powerful or as pleasing for some reason despite the fact Carvin is given some time to shine and show his seasoned chops in the middle of the tune.
Of the eight selections on the record, about half are at or beyond the 10-minute mark, and the first of these is “Prisoner of Love/Body and Soul”, a slow and thoughtful number that starts off with a rumble before Carvin and company take things down to a barren but brilliant Krall, er, crawl. Strickland is given ample time to extend a few solos as the rhythm section is spot on. Here Branford Marsalis, who produced the album, also makes a guest appearance by adding another tenor saxophone to Strickland for double the pleasure. Whether lightly hitting the cymbals or moving the brush around his snare, the icing on the cake is the barely audible brushing of Carvin. Perhaps the watershed moment on the album is the melancholic “Forest Flower” that Carvin describes perfectly in the press kit. “It’s like that one big puffy white cloud hanging in the blue sky—something beautiful around you that you just can’t grab,” he says of the song, and he’s right on the money. Slow but not to the point of being tedious, the group is tender with this nearly 13 minute soulful song, and Carvin’s performance is just above a whisper. Holmes and Strickland do the brunt of the solo work here but neither seems to one-up the other.
Another intriguing song is “A Night in Tunisia” that has Carvin exercising a strong solo before the song takes on a sprinkle of suspense prior to concluding. And this tone continues with the somewhat haunting and eerie “You Go to My Head” that evolves into another precious, intricate, and sensuous piece. Carvin might still be teaching after these three decades, but few would be able to match his ear for keeping such a flowing, joyful jazz beat alive. By the time the quartet lays out “Hello, Young Lovers”, you know Marsalis has honored one of the best.