Faubourg Marigny rests just outside the French Quarter in New Orleans. It was named after Bernard Xavier Philippe de Marigny de Mandeville, a colorful character who, among other dubious accomplishments, is credited for bringing the game of craps to New Orleans from England. In the early 1800s – shortly after the Louisiana Purchase, Marigny divided up his land (to pay off his many gambling debts) into the city’s first subdivision. Over the years, the neighborhood has become a vibrant center of commercial and industrial, as well as residential activity. Creole architecture sits alongside American cottages and townhouses. Jelly Roll Morton grew up here (on Frenchmen Street).
Nineteenth-century storefronts also still stand, as is the case with Snug Harbor. It’s a bar, dining, and music room in the Marigny where you can find Delfeayo Marsalis and his Uptown Jazz Orchestra performing most Wednesday nights to a packed house – and packed is an understatement; think, squished. That’s okay with Marsalis. “Squished up is actually better,” he says, “because you can hear what guys are playing. A lot of time, if you’re in a situation when you’re spread apart you don’t really feel the vibration of the music that well.”
That sort of excitement suits Marsalis just fine. Yes, as if you didn’t know, he is part of that Marsalis family. A trombonist of renown, he’s also a prolific producer, helming projects by everyone from Harry Connick, Jr and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, to his father and brothers. Since 2008 he’s fronted the Uptown Jazz Orchestra, and their latest, Jazz Party, although only their second studio album together, is the best representation of Marsalis and his colleagues to date.
Jazz Party is first and foremost what it advertises: a party album. It isn’t for analyzing, it’s for experiencing. Marsalis points out in his extensive liner notes that the best jazz is meant to be joyful, and Jazz Party is nothing if it’s not filled with mirth of the highest order.
Tonya Boyd-Cannon’s contralto voice is the first thing you hear as she welcomes us into a world where we’re at the center of an all night New Orleans rave up. The sound conjured on the opening cut (and title track) is more straight up gospel than jazz, but it underscores the close link jazz, gospel, and the blues all have, especially in the South, and especially in New Orleans.
The Uptown Jazz Orchestra fills every inch of the room with a joyous noise throughout. They tackle the Dirty Dozen Brass Band’s “Blackbird Special” with the vigor of James Brown’s Famous Flames on a hot night in Storyville; while “Raid on the Mingus House Party” captures the controlled chaotic feel of its namesake.
One of the many highlights on Jazz Party is “So New Orleans”, featuring vocals from Dr. Brice Miller who is – according to his Twitter account – a “New Orleans-based scholar, researcher, author, educator, jazz trumpeter, vocalist, community activist, mentor, father, husband, custom car builder, and humanitarian.” Over a second-line groove, Miller shares his NOLA pride in true call-and-response fashion.
“Mboya’s Midnight Cocktail” is a tribute to Delfeayo’s younger brother. On the spectrum, Marsalis shares, Mboya is non-verbal but likes to get “suited up” and go out on the town. The song told from the viewpoint of a bartender (played by Karen Livers) who has eyes for the song’s attractive subject, is a fun and sultry stopgap during all the festivities. It’s like we’re eavesdropping on her one-way conversation before we head off in another direction, where we encounter “Dr. Hardgroove” – a tribute to trumpeter Roy Hargrove, and a song with a deep groove that lives up to its name.
Jazz Party is a joy-filled experience without a shred of pretension. It makes you feel as if you’re in the middle of the French Quarter on a Saturday night or up to no good during a festive and mischievous Mardi Gras celebration. The city has seen its share of hardship over the years, but as Jazz Party makes clear, New Orleans’ resilience comes from the determination to have a damn good time in spite of it.