Saxophone-plus-rhythm, head down and bent to it again.
When Branford Marsalis first emerged from under the double-Grammy-winning shadow of his brother Wynton -- leaving Wynton's group to play saxophone with the newly-Police-less Sting -- it was an act of pop defiance. Wynton stood for Tradition Restored to Jazz: wearing a suit-and-tie, learning daunting virtuosity, honoring forefathers, eschewing funk, and playing it pure. Branford had other fish to fry -- playing stadiums with a rock star, jamming with the Grateful Dead, appearing in movies as a comedic actor (the 1987 Danny Devito vehicle, Throw Momma From the Train, among others), leading the Tonight Show Band for Jay Leno, and leading a funk band called Buckshot LeFonque . . . .
But Branford has his "purist" side too -- a purism laced with his own defiance.
Today, having founded Marsalis Music as a home for "artists who want to be musicians, not marketing creations", Branford is in a period of retreat from pop culture. And his longstanding quartet has been an outstanding vehicle for both tradition and tear-it-all-up aggression that largely excludes pop. It's no surprise, then, that this quartet has now recorded four albums for the new label, each of which has stared down the barrel of the most serious jazz saxophone tradition -- primarily that of Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane.
Braggtown is the latest of these strong and self-consciously serious recordings, diligently balanced between what Marsalis calls "burnout" tunes and lyrical ballads. As is so often the case with albums by either Marsalis brother, the CD booklet is filled with an unforgivably pretentious essay about "mastery of conception" and playing that is "technically dexterous". Here it is A. B. Spellman rather then Stanley Crouch who is blabbing on and on about 13/8 time signatures and providing color commentary on every solo of every song -- as if this music needed not merely applause but also explication. Branford, we're begging you: no more liner notes; the music is enough.
And it is.
There are three strong strains of pleasure running through Braggtown. First, there are amped-up examples of jazz at its most ferociously adept. On the opener, "Jack Baker", Marsalis uses a repeated, clipped phrase as the launching point for a solo that seems to be rolling downhill at breakneck speed. When this band plays fast and hard, it's crucial to note that it is not playing "free" of the harmonies in the usual play-any-note-you-feel sense. Rather, Marsalis & Company take the harmonic explorations from the end of Coltrane's career (Love Supreme onward, roughly) and wed them to surging tempos and punching articulation. On these tracks, it would be hard to overstate the confidence of this rhythm section, with Jeff "Tain" Watts constantly raising the stakes. On Tain's "Blakzilla", the drummer plays what amounts to a continuous rhythmic counterpoint, challenging saxophone and piano like he was the unscientific offspring of Elvin Jones and some kind of mad jungle cat.
On Eric Revis's tune "Black Elk Speaks", a similar approach is explored in several tempos but still with the pungent Branford formula of metal-bright tone and blowzy-loose phrasing that leads to liberal interpretation of the chordal limits. In this endeavor, Marsalis used to be aided by the canny piano artistry of the late Kenny Kirkland. Nothing was lost when Joey Calderazzo took to the piano bench, however, as he prods the leader along with a full vocabulary of clusters, swirls, and thumps. Calerazzo's own improvisations have grown more emotive and direct in recent years, bringing the trio passages in these songs into sharper focus. The dua section for Revis and Tain -- the bassist bowing at the fringes of tonality and the drummer shouting raspy encouragement -- is remarkable, leading back to the theme.
Braggtown also includes some deeply expressive ballads that sound distinctly un-Trane-ish. "Hope", a lovely rubato feature for soprano saxophone, rings with the open, Scandanavian air of Keith Jarrett's European quartet of the '70s. While much warmer of sound than Jan Garbarek, Marsalis borrows from the Jarrett group's sense of patience with the melody and from the beautiful ache that comes from the right harmonies falling into place with a steady but gentle hand. "Sir Roderick, The Aloof" sounds even more Jarrett-esque, with the pleasant, twisting melody sounding as elegant for Revis and Calderazzo as it does in the leader's keening soprano voice. Each voice sounds marvelously free yet plays inside a consonant harmonic structure.
Finally, the third strain of Braggtown is a surprising use of classical motifs and forms. Marsalis's affecting ballad, "Fate", is based on a motif from Wagner's Ring cycle, though stated over a slow Latin feel from Tain. The sound of the tune -- while in a standard modern jazz bag -- has a classical logic, with recurrences and mimicking phrases throughout. Even more obviously classical, however, is "O Solitude", a melody straight from Henry Purcell. Here, the quartet does not jazz things at all, however. Everything -- the melody, the improvisations, the restatement -- is played "straight". Calderazzo is particularly impressive, developing his improvisation with exceptional restraint and care -- but without ever referencing a blues lick or bop rhythm. For just a minute late in the performance, Marsalis tears off a few syncopations as a momentary reminder, but mostly the success of the performance is in its knowing restraint.
Despite these three fairly distinct styles, Braggtown has a single-mindedness about it. Presenting three faces of "no compromise at all!", Marsalis's latest looks backward to Trane, Jarrett and European masters with equal fascination. But it also looks forward, managing, despite its historical concerns, to forge a single unique voice in jazz quartet music. Hard work, that.
The only problem with this music is its odd earnestness -- its seriousness in the face of a good time. Branford remains committed to a looser, more intimate jazz sound than his brother Wynton, but he does relatively little to bring wit or warmth to these performances. The music catches fire, but the spirit in the tunes remains a kind of a construct, if a brilliant one most of the time. Branford the Artist, not the entertainer, will enlighten you here.
And, of course, you want a little of his smirk too -- the devilish fun of his performance in Throw Momma From the Train, even if that movie was no great shakes. Braggtown actually is great. But, like its liner notes, it makes you wish for a little less.