Love him or hate him, it’s difficult to deny that Branford Marsalis is an excellent musician. From his PhD dissertations in Art Blakey’s school of higher education (a.k.a. the Jazz Messengers), to the ultimately ill-fated rap/funk offshoot Buckshot LeFonque, to his extensive catalog of straight-ahead jazz work recorded for Sony/Columbia through the ‘80s and ‘90s, there’s little question that the man has the skills to do just about whatever captures his interest. But Marsalis hasn’t been quite as successful in converting those impeccable technical abilities into projects of lasting creative value; even though he’s not quite as outspoken as his younger brother Wynton on the subject of jazz politics and the exclusionary push toward establishing jazz as a “Black Classical Music”, his obsession with the classic sounds of the past too often puts an unnecessary ceiling on his artistic potential.
Suffice to say then that Romare Bearden Revealed, a musical tribute to the famed jazz-influenced painter, doesn’t break from the established Marsalis mold. The majority of the disc attempts to meld a soundtrack to a selection of Bearden’s paintings, and while Marsalis and his guests affect genuine approximations of the artist’s imagery, I still can’t help wishing they’d get over the academicism and just play. Because when they do, as on the live Marsalis Family take on Jelly Roll Morton’s “Jungle Blues”, they’re able to get past the constraints of their intellect and whoop it up with a ton of style. But for the majority of the CD, even though the level of playing is as above reproach as one expects from Marsalis and company, the performances rarely surpass the concept—they’re portraits of jazz history and little more.
What’s more vexing about this program, though, is that given Bearden’s broad palette of inclusion, any all-inclusive musical tribute to his work has a lot of ground to cover. So we get Ellingtonian swing, Jelly Roll’s N’awlins drawl, Milesian modalism, and even a bit of freebop thrown in for good measure—all played to flawless authenticity, but far too random when collected together in one listening experience. Which brings up another tangential observation, but an important one nonetheless—perhaps it’s not the Marsalises’ conservatism that’s so exasperating, but the fact that they too often play roles that their unparalleled technique allows them to play as a substitute for original ideas. Because, as this album proves once again, Branford can play Wayne Shorter to Wynton’s Miles Davis (or Sidney Bechet to Wynton’s Louis Armstrong, or…) to a tee, but when it comes to having their own unique musical personalities, it’s a tabula rasa all the way.
Regardless, the CD still has its share of bright moments. One of the most intriguing pieces is one penned in part by Bearden himself, the sleepily exotic “Seabreeze”. It’s the type of humid, cloying melody that you might hear on a cruise ship, but Marsalis’ quartet plays it with such pure sincerity that it transcends its potential for corniness. Also noteworthy are guitarist Doug Wamble’s guest spots on “B’s Paris Blues” and “Autumn Lamp” (the latter a lovely piece for solo slide guitar) and, surprisingly enough, Harry Connick, Jr.‘s mightily adept ragtime piano on the duet piece “Carolina Shout”. Even “Laughin’ & Talkin’ (With Higg)” is a laudable attempt at Ornette Coleman-style freebop with a piano-less quartet, but it serves a clear reminder that abstraction isn’t the Marsalis Brothers’ strong suit. Branford rises to the occasion with plenty of zeal when the rhythm section (Eric Revis and Jeff “Tain” Watts) turns up the heat, but Wynton’s playing is just downright unconvincing in this context (Branford has always been a little more sympathetic to the jazz avant-garde than his brother, asinine dismissal of Cecil Taylor in Ken Burns’ Jazz documentary notwithstanding).
Criticism aside, though, there’s definitely a fair share of good music to be heard here, especially if your taste in jazz doesn’t lean as far to the left as mine does. Additionally, the CD booklet contains beautiful (although small) reproductions of the Bearden paintings Marsalis used as inspiration for the record—a fantastic introduction to the artist’s work for those who have not yet had the pleasure.