Review by Brad Walseth
There seems to be division in Jazz today between those who favor the avant-garde approach of pushing the music to ever-greater extremes, and those who feel this same influence has led Jazz astray and diminished its impact by forgetting its traditional roots. The Marsalis family has generally staked their claim firmly in the traditional path, and certainly they should be applauded for their efforts in making sure the world does not forget the genesis of this great music. However, their efforts have not been met with universal acclaim by many in the avant-garde world. I personally favor the belief that both approaches have much that is worthy within them, and that we should only judge music on the standard of whether it is "good" or not. Delfeayo Marsalis' new release - "Minions Dominion" falls pretty clearly within the traditional minded camp, and it is good; Wow, is it good!
One of the last recordings of the great drummer Elvin Jones, "Minions" might be worth having for that alone; but fortunately the material, production, arrangements, musicians and playing catapult the album into sure "must have" territory. "Brer Rabbit" opens the proceedings and Jones and bassist Robert Hurst III propel the music forward ferociously, while Marsalis, alto saxophonist Donald Harrison and pianist Mulgrew Miller generate spirited solos over the top. The trombonist's sprightly, bluesy solo mimics the tricky character of "Brer Rabbit," Harrison slips and slides in cascades, and Miller plays lines that are both surprising and surprisingly grounded. These are world-class musicians attacking a fun arrangement with a zesty zeal that is irresistible.
The moody "Lone Warrior" follows and pulls you in with a sound that reminds one of Jones' former bandleader John Coltrane - especially in Harrison's sax ebullition. Miller adds understated beauty, while Marsalis' trombone lines are a model of intelligence, skill and creativity. Delfeayo's brilliance continues on the ballad "If You Only Know" - where he is joined by brother Branford - whose glorious golden-toned tenor sax contrasts with and completes the picture painted by his younger brother's long, mournfully muted tones.
The title track is a showcase for drummer Jones, and the 74-year-old man not only rises to the task, but puts most younger drummers to shame. Delfeayo's solo is a prime example of how to use the trombone as an instrument of melody, not of torture, within a hard driving context; while big bro Branford's frenzied tenor burns with a fury that is only cooled by the emergence of Miller's seemingly effortless resplendence. Jones plays a fantastic solo of controlled energy that reminds one how much this wonderful player will be missed.
Duke Ellington's fun and romantic "Just Squeeze Me" again allows the artist to unveil his gorgeous tone on the muted trombone and his solo is expressly pointed to the traditional in the best sense. Branford again adds a somewhat more modern, harder sound that works well in counterpoint, and Miller's solo is a pleasurable excursion down melody lane. "Weaver of Dreams" gives Delfeayo an opportunity to cut loose and solo with a command of his horn that must be the envy of any trombonist with an ear. Here again, Harrison brings his admirable lyricism on alto, while drummer Jones puts on a clinic on rhythmic improvisation underneath.
"Lost in the Crescent" completes this album, and is perhaps the most daunting composition of the session. According to the liner notes by A.B. Spellman, it is based on an original story by Delfeayo about two post-Civil War men who - though freed as slaves - are trapped in indentured service and run away - only to get lost in unknown territory. The Marsalis brothers play the parts of the two men with their instruments, and their lines exhibit a wide range of emotions - from hopeful resolution in Delfeayo's stirring trombone - to anger and frustration in Branford's frantic soprano. Musically based on Branford's "The Beautyful Ones" - which was also based on Brahms' Symphony No. 3 - 3rd Movement, this piece presents a stunning and unforgettable climax to an album of great and subtle power.