Four MFs Playin' Tunes isn't as lame and laboured as its title would suggest, but it's far too content to sit pretty on a post-bop pedestal that everyone else abandoned quite a while ago.
Now, pardon my French, but there’s actually something really amusing about the word “motherfucker”. It gives us more than cheeky teenage kicks. It tends to hit the mark regardless of its grammatical context. The more aggressive end of the hip-hop spectrum uses it as a grunted adjective. When Prince used it, it was lascivious and raunchy. And, before all that, it was used by George Clinton in a more tame formation – the playfully psychedelic euphemism that was the word “motherfunker”. For Branford Marsalis, however, it seems to be a term of endearment for his quartet (pianist Joey Calderazzo, Eric Revis on bass, and new boy Justin Faulkner on drums). But while this sounds rather sweet, one might also say that Marsalis was trying a teeny tiny bit too hard to sound controversial. After all, this quartet is a uncontroversial set-up playing rather conventional jazz in a post-bop vain, so doesn’t it seem a bit, well, laboured? Perhaps it would have been better to call it Four Bookish Jazz Guys Wearin’ Jumpers, or Four Cool Jazz Dads Drivin’ Safely, or something. Yeah, that’s what we’ll call it.
Without accounting for his celebrity play dates with Sting, Four Dutiful Husbands Buyin’ Groceries is Branford Marsalis’s 24th album. It consists of seven looping original pieces of pretty bog-standard post-bop and two covers (Monk’s “Teo” and Robin, Chase, and Whiting’s “My Ideal”). And by “bog-standard”, I mean that it gets stuck in its own stinky, self-indulgent funk. It’s the same old studious conservatism that we know and loathe -- it stands its ground and doesn't look outside of the sadly deforested jazz jungle for inspiration. Indeed, on Four Young Lions Roarin’ Meekly, Branford Marsalis makes absolutely no attempt to rethink – let alone move beyond – the great innovators of the jazz world post-bebop. Make no mistake, it’s not a bad record by any means, and the Quartet are all good individual musicians. But when they play together, there just isn’t any fire. Nothing interesting happens.
Now, we can’t blame Marsalis or the other three-quarters of the quartet for the troubles of the jazz end of the music industry. Dwindling audiences since the 1980s and the collapse of record-buying have forced labels and artists into making some poor choices. But, here, Marsalis commits two of the numerous sins of contemporary jazz. First, this record is too long. At nine tracks and more than 66 minutes, it seems overloaded, like it wants to baffle you with its numerous, but ultimately quite empty, ideas. Second, the quantity-over-quality policy means that Marsalis opts to show off those ideas in a way that sacrifices any authentic exploration of themes or moods. This basically reduces the Quartet to being a jam band. They end up just being four guys. In a studio. Playing tunes. And somehow we’re supposed to swallow all their twists and turns and suave use of apostrophes as if they’re a sort of high-minded musical dialogue.
There are some shrewd exotic touches on opener “The Mighty Sword”. The interplay between Marsalis and Calderazzo, who spends the entire track tizzying over the high-notes, is really joyful, while bass and drums provide us with a shuffling, swinging backbone. But didn’t we already hear that on Sonny Rollins’s take on “St Thomas”? It doesn’t bring much more to the table. Both “Whiplash” and “Endymion” take some frenetic twists and turns. On the former, Marsalis dictates a shifting mood – tentative, kinda worrying, to a shuddering sprained drum solo conclusion. On the latter, we start off with a strange, soulful introduction, with Marsalis and Calderazzo playing an off-centre melody that quickly turns into something rather rattling and confusing. Revis gets his say about half way through, and it all comes crashing down at the end.
Basically, Four Vacationing Grad Students Wearin’ Fannypacks, in the swooning melancholia of “As Summer Into Autumn Slips”, and on the first half of “Maestra”, we get some good old fashioned contemplative ballads thrown in for good measure. However, there’s not very much to set anything on here apart from everything else that’s just like it that you’ve probably heard before. It’s not that it’s bland or boring, it’s just that the same sort of musicians have been putting out the same sort of records for the best part of 20 years. Where some of their peers have explored the stranger outreaches of afro-tech-jazz, or shown us just how darned dialectically integrated jazz and hip-hop are, Branford Marsalis and his crew have firmly entrenched themselves in a past long gone. And on this evidence, they ain’t budging.