A couple of weeks ago, when I was starting to come down with the flu, I did manage to fool myself into thinking I was well enough to get out to Berkeley for the Cal Performances presentation of Delfeayo Marsalis Octet performing Sweet Thunder, which turned out to be a fortunate self-deception since I would have hated to miss this outstanding concert (though I could have done without the three rude stupid girls also in Row J who kept their cell phones on the entire performance; apparently they felt the pre-concert announcement that all electronic devices should be turned off did not apply to very special people like them; sadly I could not, for a number of reasons, either say anything to them or move; I could only contemplate the fathomless blithe stupidity of people).
Anyway. Sweet Thunder is an adaptation for octet of the orchestral suite Such Sweet Thunder, composed by Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn and inspired by Shakespeare. Given the artists involved it's not surprising that this is a wonderful, freewheeling, and inventive piece, moving selectively among the vast possibilities of Shakespeare, touching some unexpected points (I wouldn't have thought that Henry V was particularly inspirational to anyone, but there's a lively and somewhat obstreperous Sonnet to Hank Cinq (a name which is typical of Ellington's offhand wit and elegance)). Ellington and Strayhorn seemed particularly drawn to unhappy love (pieces on Romeo and Juliet, Cleopatra, and the confused quartet of Midsummer Night), madness (Hamlet and Ophelia, Lady Macbeth), or both (Othello).
Marsalis gave brief, useful insights into each piece, with offhand charm; he sounded completely spontaneous, though he must have planned what to say. Before playing Lady Mac he mentioned that people could bring craziness and even madness on themselves; "That's true!" proclaimed the loud woman behind me. Marsalis gave some useful tips on the clever structure of the pieces, noting that the three "sonnets" (besides the Sonnet to Hank Cinq we heard the Sonnet in Search of a Moor and the Sonnet to Caesar) were constructed, in tribute to the traditions of the sonnet form, in fourteen ten-beat lines. He also noted the difference between Strayhorn and Ellington, with the former more structured and "written" and the latter more improvisational and eclectic.
Marsalis can make his trombone speak like a character, from wails and shrieks to low laments to martial swagger to a lover's bravado. Such speaking instruments can really do justice to the richness of Shakespeare's characters. The rest of the band was equally dazzling: Mark "Preacherman" Gross on tenor and soprano saxophone, Jeff Clayton on alto saxophone, Jamelle Williams on trumpet, Oliver Bonie on baritone saxophone, Glen Pearson on piano, David Pulphus on bass, and Winard Harper on drums. I went in expecting Shakespeare, Ellington, and Strayhorn to be great, but I left convinced that Delfeayo Marsalis had done them proud.