Ellis Marsalis, Heart of Gold (Columbia Records)

Ellis’ fans will no doubt welcome his new album on Columbia. Produced by son Delfeayo, it features Ray Brown on bass and Herlin Riley, Billy Higgins, and Jason Marsalis as a line supporting crew on drums. “Have You Met Miss Jones?” is a straight-ahead, light, swinging reading with no surprises. But on “Never Let Me Go” Ellis gets thoughtful. For my taste, the slow tempo on this ballad is just below the parameter of swing, and the piece struggles to keep shape. Next comes “Chapter Two,” another slow piece in 3/4. The drums tastefully try to lift it with an upbeat jazz-waltz feel. But the large lush chords, pretty as they are, tend to cloud the direction of the tune. “Spring Can Really Hang You Up The Most” slows the pace of the album down yet again to a rather self-absorbed rubato reading, with no improvisation. I found “Swinging At The Haven” to be rather confusing listening: the structure of the tune sounded reversed. “Dr. Jazz” opens with some nice funky second line drums. This is a clever interpretation, but it didn’t take the idea far enough. The improvisations on the ballads have wonderful thick chords, but in the upbeat songs, there was more of an adherence to single melody lines. I kept wanting to hear a big fistful of piano against Herlin Riley’s Mardi Gras exuberance. “Do You Know What It Means To Miss New Orleans?” offered no real surprises—a straight, melancholy reading. “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love” was another slow-tempoed tune, with a nice key change up for the improv. Ellis’ cute little Ellington quote from “Things Ain’t What They Used To Be” lost a little of its freshness when he used it again in the third chorus. “Surrey With The Fringe On Top” followed in the same slow swing tempo. I couldn’t help but think of the fire of the Ahmad Jamal version. This is safe, rather than adventurous, playing. The album finished with my all-time favorite, “A Nightingale Sang In Barkley Square.” I’m not particularly fond of rubato solo piano, but what really left me disappointed was the lack of Improvisation. I would liked to have known what Ellis had to say on this interesting piece. Ellis and his crew are all fine, experienced players, but frankly I was left a little sad each time I listened to this album. There was an air of heaviness that just pervaded the entire work. While this is an admirable attempt by Delfeayo, a stronger producer’s hand might have elicited the “New Orleans style” exuberance that I think seems to be missing from this recording.