Branford Marsalis Quartet: Eternal

Branford Marsalis Quartet

I am not au fait with every detail of the in-the-past row between Branford Marsalis and his younger, even more famous trumpeter brother. It seemed to have something to do with Branford’s playing things like the soprano saxophone solo that greeted me last night when I went for some fish and chips. The lady serving sang along with Sting as she dished up the food.

Suffice it to say that if anybody needed to forgive Branford Marsalis for wandering far from any jazz mainstream — I am saying nothing about the merits of his different sorties in a variety of directions — this CD would help them greatly. It hasn’t the historical reference of his previous set, it’s just an unusually accomplished quartet date, and it would not help anybody who wanted to argue decisively that Marsalis wasn’t among the most outstanding saxophonists currently prominent. This is ballad and lyrical playing of the highest order.

This set also bears comparison, stylistically and in repertoire, with Scott Hamilton and Harry Allen and the great Danny Moss — whose career began before any of the others was born — among current majors. Joe Lovano has also of late been demonstrating the worth of that schtick, and here Branford M. does the same — operating from a basis somewhere near the more lyrical extremes of Sonny Rollins and Benny Golson. He differs from all these guys in being perhaps the most complete soprano saxophonist currently recording. He has as much depth on the straight horn as pretty much anybody. This I realised shortly after my first experience of hearing Steve Lacy live. Marsalis cropped up locally a little after that, and I missed nothing of Lacy’s depth. This was astonishing.

Actually, the opening track on this CD is not so different from the sort of thing Sidney Bechet would play, with the drummer performing a tom-tom effect somewhere between mambo and Kasbah. In fact, Steve Lacy did record some Bechet numbers, and Branford M. was at it on his previous set too.

Here, there is an alternation between Lacy-esque cleanness, precise clarity, and a really clarinetish sound. While Joey Calderazzo’s piano plumps for the mambo option toward the end, his solo is like the saxophonist’s: incredibly, sensitively lyrical. This pianist has become something!

“Reika’s Loss” is a poignant soprano feature composed by the drummer, ‘Tain’ Watts, with a broader, more mellow sound from the hornman on a theme not too unlike some things Lacy did. The pianist provides a very full, very gentle support, exploring a wealth of harmonies in his own solo.

If there’s any reminiscence of Coltrane on the opening of the tenor feature “Gloomy Sunday”, the band doesn’t underplay it. Watts pays tribute to the thunder and cascade of Elvin Jones on the old classic recordings. Any allusion is wistful, and the tone nearer Harry Allen, when the solo commences after an almost heartbreakingly quiet lead in by Calderazzo. There are times when the pianist again seems on the point of floating away with this performance, whether playing counter-phrases with each hand against the other, or with hands locked in chorded passages. The tenor uses a Dexter Gordon forthrightness to rein in a passion that is expressed often by timing. In the further reaches of the performance, Watts is the quietest drummer I know. Eric Revis plays a sparing bass. Towering stuff.

Calderazzo’s “The Lonely Swan” is again a feature for soprano, with Revis’s springily resonant bass moving along a medium tempo exercise in neo-Latin melancholy. “Dinner for One, Please, James” on tenor was a brilliant choice, with its tenderly ironic and medium-dry conception. It’s a perfect vehicle for the sensitive understatement of a huge weight of feeling. I think the song was written for a spoken sort of delivery, and that suits this saxophonist.

Eric Revis’s “Muldoon” returns BM to soprano. It becomes clear how far his mastery of the straight horn draws on a palette developed on tenor. He seems to play things that would also be of great interest on tenor, but might shade more wholly into something more like Ben Webster.

Composed by Branford Marsalis, the title track is by far the longest at nearly 18 minutes, and also the most up-to-the-minute in style. On a couple of listens through, I found it rather overshadowed by what had gone before. This really emphasised what an incredibly powerful performance the whole set is. Here, the tenor seems to play music I would associate more with soprano. Calderazzo takes his solo with the simplest phrases, and the most impeccable timing and touch. The drummer does an enormous amount, fearfully softly. The tenorist’s re-entry is barely audible, very soft. However, the picking up of pace which follows seems less successful, and this one does go on too long.

But if this review has nothing but high praise for the 50 minutes of stunning music which preceded this last long track, it had best stop now.

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