Thunder Road_lowres

Delfeayo Marsalis' new CD reworks music by Duke Ellington.

Sweet Thunder: Duke and Shak feat. Ellis Marsalis and Branford Marsalis

7:30 p.m. Thursday

Mahalia Jackson Theater, 1419 Basin St., 287-0351; or

Tickets $43.05-$55.90 (including fees)

Nobody messes with the Duke. As a composer, bandleader and a creator of jazz, Duke Ellington has precious few peers in the history of American music. But that hasn't stopped Delfeayo Marsalis from re-imagining Ellington's late-career masterpiece Such Sweet Thunder, which Ellington and collaborator Billy Strayhorn worked on for six months before its 1957 debut. Inspired by the works of Shakespeare, Such Sweet Thunder was originally written for a 15-piece jazz orchestra. Marsalis has streamlined the music for his handpicked octet. Is it daunting to take on the Duke?

  "Not for me," Marsalis says. "I've always felt my responsibility as a musician, a producer — really, as a person — was to protect the legacy of older generations by attempting to further their cause. To recreate the music in its original form would do it no justice. I'm hoping that putting this music out will shed new light on it."

  That light begins to shine this week with the release of Marsalis' Sweet Thunder on Troubadour Jass Records. In addition, Marsalis begins a 36-city tour of an original theatrical production titled Sweet Thunder: Duke and Shak on January 20 with a performance at the Mahalia Jackson Theater. Joining him onstage at the debut performance will be father Ellis Marsalis and brother Branford Marsalis. The production combines the music of Sweet Thunder with readings from Shakespeare selected by Charles E. Gerber and performed by actor Kenneth Brown Jr. Local theater stalwart John Grimsley directs.

  "What I've avoided is a situation where the music would serve as a backdrop for the text, as in a typical theatrical show," Marsalis says. "We're presenting it side-by-side, trying to parallel the two. Hopefully the audience will see, first of all, that Shakespeare can be cool."

  Marsalis traces his interest back to a paper he wrote about Ellington in the seventh grade, which also focused on Marsalis' great-great uncle Wellman Braud — who was the bassist in Ellington's first orchestra. While doing graduate work in 2002, Marsalis came across the handwritten score for Such Sweet Thunder. He knew then the piece was going to have special significance for him. "There was something about seeing the music in Ellington's and Strayhorn's original writing," Marsalis says. "It was like seeing the Holy Grail of music."

  For Marsalis, music is always a multi-generational affair. For the upcoming tour, he has scheduled special performances for students in addition to the public concerts. On January 19, his company will do two performances for children, arranged through local schools. "Kids don't hear that much jazz," Marsalis says. "It's almost like when I went to Japan playing with Elvin Jones, and I was first introduced to their food, the good sushi. I returned home and I said, 'Man, I got to try some more of that.' ... We're just going to get the word out and keep swinging."