Delfeayo Marsalis did not plan to record a live album in Kalamazoo, Michigan, on April 17, 2015.
The jazz trombonist's concert at a Western Michigan University recital hall was bracketed by a grueling week of travel. It was also the very first performance by a quartet that featured his father, pianist Ellis Marsalis, bassist Reginald Veal and drummer Ralph Peterson. Delfeayo had collaborated with the three musicians individually, but they’d never before shared a stage collectively.
A Michigan radio station recorded the Kalamazoo concert, intending to cull 20 minutes of highlights for a broadcast. But when Marsalis heard the full recording, he immediately realized, “We need to release this.”
The result is “Kalamazoo,” his first-ever live album, issued via his Troubadour Jass Records. On it, the quartet steps out on the standards “Autumn Leaves,” “It Don’t Mean a Thing,” “Tin Roof Blues,” "My Funny Valentine" and “Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans.” Original compositions, the “Sesame Street” theme reinvented as a blues, and banter round out the program.
A quartet showcases Marsalis’ musicality in ways that his hometown fans don’t often hear. Locally, he mostly performs with his 15-piece Uptown Jazz Orchestra, which holds down a weekly Wednesday night gig at Snug Harbor.
This month, the Uptown Jazz Orchestra will present a program of holiday music, anchored by Duke Ellington’s “The Nutcracker Suite,” at two churches.
They’ll perform at 5 p.m. Sunday at Trinity Episcopal Church (1329 Jackson Ave.) and at 7 p.m. Dec. 21 at Historic St. James A.M.E. Church (222 N. Roman St.). Admission is free.
Taking a big band on the road is cost prohibitive, which is one reason Marsalis arrived for that Kalamazoo concert with just a quartet. On little sleep, the musicians conducted a children’s workshop in the morning, followed by the formal recital hall concert that night.
Being forced to power through exhaustion and rise to the occasion “really helps,” Marsalis said. “It extends the human spirit. Not just your spirit, but your physicality and emotions. That’s when humans are at their best, when there’s a challenge to be overcome. It’s better than being laid back and relaxed. It’s like having a deadline.”
The musicians were also looser not knowing in advance that their performance would be preserved for posterity on a live album. “You’re not playing as freely when a recording is looming,” Marsalis said. “When you think everything has to be perfect, that apprehension doesn’t work in your favor.”
In Kalamazoo, they played with “an easygoing sense of freedom.” Ellis Marsalis’ piano is typically elegant and refined. “We have respect, obviously, for my dad as a performer and educator,” his son said. “But he’s looking for us to challenge him.”
So are audiences. Jazz musicians, Marsalis said, must find the happy medium between singalong pop concerts and formal classical concerts. “Kalamazoo" strikes that balance. The audience claps along during “It Don’t Mean a Thing,” but listens respectfully to the Marsalis composition “The Secret Love Affair.”
“Audiences really want to be engaged and entertained, and be a part of what is going on. The challenge, especially with modern jazz, is to not exclude the audience.”
Several Western Michigan music students were invited to sit in during the show. Only vocalist Christian O’Neill Diaz and drummer Madison George accepted the challenge.
As he often does with the Uptown Jazz Orchestra, Marsalis improvised a song onstage with the students. Much to the audience’s amusement, he rejected the first two keys Diaz requested to sing in.
“That was a fun moment,” Marsalis said. “The audience was cheering for him.
“A lot of people don’t understand my sense of humor. At my shows, anything goes. We want to have a good time.”
He and Diaz eventually settled on C-sharp; Diaz scats his way through a new song dubbed “Blue Kalamazoo.”
“It was a risk for him, it was a risk for us — I didn’t know what he would sound like,” Marsalis said. “Many times, in our attempt to create an artistic statement and be perceived as serious, we don’t take those risks. But from the greatest risks are garnered the greatest rewards. That was one of them.”
That said, “had I known we were recording, that probably would not have occurred.”
Following his 1992 debut album, “Pontius Pilate’s Decision,” a record label dispute delayed his next album for five years. Marsalis releases music much more frequently nowadays.
“Kalamazoo” follows the Uptown Jazz Orchestra’s “Make America Great Again!” last year and his 2014 album “The Last Southern Gentlemen.” Another CD is due in 2018.
“I’ve got a lot of music and ideas,” he said. “I’m going to keep them coming.”