Song of the Week: The Surrey with the Fringe on Top, The Marsalis Family

Click Here to listen to “The Surrey with the Fringe on Top,” by the Marsalis Family

This post originally appeared on Turntablr, Vintage Voltage’s spirit animal

I like jazz. The typical reader of this blog may not, so I promise to not go all out on jazz terminology. Like dubstep or indie folk, jazz is a genre that takes a while to wrap your head around and appreciate. So you have a free pass if you don’t dig this right away, but give it a few listens before you dismiss it entirely.

The name Marsalis is big in jazz circles—trumpeter Wynton is already a living legend, saxophonist Branford regularly packs concert halls, and their father Ellis taught for many years at the University of New Orleans. In 2001 the entire Marsalis family (including trombonist Delfeayo and drummer Jason) got together in New Orleans to lay down this album. I actually saw them on their subsequent tour, but since I was nine, I didn’t really appreciate it.

This track features Ellis on piano and Jason on drums, backed by Roland Guerin on the bass. Ellis takes a corny showtune (originally from Oklahoma!) and imbues it with a deeply funky energy.

People looking to understand what makes a song “jazz” should play the original version of “Surrey” first, and then play this version. The difference is in the phrasing: Ellis deletes notes he doesn’t like, repeats ones he does, and gets lazy with it when he wants. It’s all about feel.

Guerin sets the tone with his bass entrance at 00:46—if you don’t have speakers with good clear bass, find a pair that do. Ellis opens the track up at 00:59 with an incredibly lush two-handed chord. He states the main theme at 01:22, and he swings it hard.

A word, if I may, on Jason’s drum solo at 04:09. It’s not Neil Peart, that’s for sure—for starters, Jason probably has four or five drums compared to Neil’s 20+. It’s not a technically mind blowing solo, but it’s not supposed to be. Jazz drummers prize locking into a “groove” above everything else: steady, pulsing tempo. That’s exactly what Jason does here: he locks in, and then manipulates the groove all over the place. It’s a different type of technical mastery.

So there you have it. That’s jazz. There’s a lot of subtlety here, and I still pick up on new stuff every time. My current favorite is Ellis’ outro at 07:42—the way he turns the melody into some sort of jazzy doorbell. They’re having fun, and that’s evident no matter how much you know about jazz.

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