Branford and the boys offer ballads, burners, and the Baroque on the bi-polar Braggtown.
If you've heard at least a few recordings from jazz saxophonist Branford Marsalis, you know that he, like his even more prestigious trumpeter brother Wynton, has actually reveled in many moods (along with modes and motifs) throughout his career. He first became seriously famous as a member of the Blue Turtles, a jazz-pop-rock band Sting brought together shortly after breaking up the Police in 1985. Just prior to that, Branford had become well known for his presence in Wynton's group, as they spearheaded the "young lions" movement in jazz, helping to revive the mostly dormant sounds of hard bop as a viable commercial form. Since making his early break from "pure jazz" (whatever that means), Branford has recorded a couple of albums of classical music, attempted a miserable fusion of funky hip-hop and jazz with his Buckshot LeFonque project, served as musical director for Jay Leno, and issued a wide-ranging collection of jazz records, from his excursion into guest star-riddled blues on I Heard You Twice the First Time to the hero-worshipping Footsteps of Our Fathers, on which his ensemble reworked some of the greatest opuses of the 1950s and '60s jazz, including John Coltrane's entire A Love Supreme LP and Sonny Rollins's lengthy "The Freedom Suite".
On his latest disc, Braggtown (named for the Durham, North Carolina neighborhood in which Marsalis resides), Branford teams again with his regular 21st century quartet, featuring Eric Revis on bass, Joey Calderazzo on piano, and Jeff "Tain" Watts playing drums, as he has done behind Marsalis since 1983. Each sideman contributes one composition to the album, along with three from Marsalis and Henry Purcell's "O Solitude" (1690). The music is firmly divided between what Marsalis aptly labels "high-energy burnouts" and more meditative numbers one might roundly say are ballads (although they certainly don't aim for Gershwin-esque sighing sweetness). In the former category are Marsalis's "Jack Baker", Watts's "Blakzilla" (inspired by the soundtrack to the 1953 film version of Godzilla), and Revis's "Black Elk Speaks". These numbers all feature torrents of notes from Branford and much hard-hitting from Watts, but the melodies aren't terribly memorable.
The slower numbers leave more to latch onto. Calderazzo's "Hope" is pretty and as spare as Satie, only to rise with Romantically-inspired drama and passion toward the end, the music riding a surging wave of soprano sax, malleted drums, and rolling piano phrasings. The final act of a Shakespearian tragedy could be performed to this number, and I mean that in a good way. Marsalis sticks to the soprano for his two ballads, "Fate" and "Sir Roderick, the Aloof", both of which are pretty, although structurally more conventional than "Hope". In the midst of this is the elegiac "O Solitude", a beautiful dirge, the quartet's recording of which shows surprisingly little melodic improvisation; Purcell's work is treated with reverence.
So, it's burners and ballads on Braggtown. Assigning tempo tags to the tracklisting makes me wonder if Branford meant for the sequencing to inspire a dance step: fast, slow, slow, fast, slow, slow, fast. Hey, what that schema lacks in variety, it makes up for in pattern organization. Now consider an album like Requiem. The last Marsalis recorded with his original pianist Kenny Kirkland (d. 1998), it mined similar territory more effectively, displaying more thoughtful phrasing on the ballads and less bluster on the numbers where the group let it fly, while also finding some fun and funky middle ground. For sheer instrumental prowess on the sax, Marsalis struts his stuff best on the banging trio sessions recorded for The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born. If it's balladry you crave, see 2002's gorgeous Eternal, wherein this quartet dedicated seven slow and lovely pieces to the likes of Ray Charles, Elvin Jones, and Steve Lacy.
Braggtown offers much skillful and intense playing, but the bipolarity of its musical moods is a bit limiting. Also, despite the group's undeniable chops, the disc reveals few stylistic risks, particularly on the circa-1966-Trane-meets-Miles hard bop numbers. All of this conspires to yield an album that lacks distinction. The playing alone elevates the disc above the middle ground, but the record certainly doesn't ascend into greatness. Fans of spontaneous blowing sessions will enjoy the fast-swinging tracks here, while two of the slower selections, "Hope" and "O Solitude", are the album's transcendent highlights. Braggtown is good, but, from an artist of Branford Marsalis's caliber, we expect something a little special to set each release apart from the pack.