Branford Marsalis Quartet
First Appeared in The Music Box, April 2007, Volume 14, #4
Written by John Metzger
The knock against Branford Marsalis is that his career often has lacked a focus. His penchant for restless experimentation, his stint on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, and his appearances in several films did little to help his cause. Since returning to a more traditional framework and shedding his celebrity status, however, Marsalis has been working hard to reclaim his legacy, though the fact that his resurgence began with the formation of his own record label certainly isn’t a coincidence. His 2002 effort Footsteps of Our Fathers gave him an opportunity to get back in touch with his roots as he ambitiously crafted his own interpretations of Sonny Rollins’ The Freedom Suite and John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme. The latter song, in particular, was a primary stimulus to his reawakening, and the following year, he hauled his band to Holland to tackle the composition in a concert setting. Majestically captured on the CD/DVD collection Coltrane’s A Love Supreme: Live in Amsterdam, the results were nothing short of spectacular, and it was immediately apparent that whatever obstacles had been preventing Marsalis from moving forward with his music suddenly had been ejected from the playing field.
The spirit of Coltrane continues to inform the material on Marsalis’ latest endeavor Braggtown. Just as prevalent, however, are the influences of Ornette Coleman and Sonny Rollins. Better still, Marsalis avoids mere emulation. Instead, he has integrated the lessons he learned, parlaying them into his own distinctive voice. As a result, the seven-track suite of songs is, without question, the most consistent, cohesive, and spiritually moving set of his career.
Part of Marsalis’ success, no doubt, is due to the magnificent ensemble that he has assembled as well as to its highly-developed chemistry. Drummer Jeff "Tain" Watts, who has been with Marsalis since his debut Scenes in the City, has an extraordinary knack for propelling the material forward while also matching the mood of his bandmates. He was integral to the process of reworking A Love Supreme, and he plays a similar role throughout Braggtown. On the opening track Jack Baker, for example, he uses a light, swinging touch to underscore Joey Calderazzo’s spry piano accompaniment, but when Marsalis turns the song in a more chaotic direction, Watts follows suit, altering his approach by augmenting the group leader’s squiggly, electrically-charged, live-wire impulses with a violently churning, rhythmic fury. Calderazzo, too, is perfectly in tune with Marsalis, and he deftly moves between framing Marsalis’ solos and adding his own lyrical statements, such as the abstract splatter-painting he places across Blakzilla’s driving groove. As for bass player, Eric Revis, his contributions alternate between the pensive subtlety with which he underscores O Solitude and the frenetic rumbling accents he drapes over Black Elk Speaks.
The other side of the story, however, is Marsalis’ much improved confidence in his abilities. His ideas seem boundless, and throughout Braggtown, he employs a versatile array of creatively expressive techniques. Both Hope and Fate — which, situated next to one another, form a nearly 20-minute suite — are beautifully lyrical, and between them, Marsalis and Calderazzo conjure an air of somber yet optimistic reflection. The concluding track Black Elk Speaks stands in stark contrast, and diving headfirst into the free jazz maelstrom, Marsalis takes a thrilling ride over the rough-hewn terrain that is sculpted by his ensemble. Although Braggtown explores motifs that were introduced to the jazz world several decades prior, Marsalis, Calderazzo, Revis, and Watts collectively have composed a song cycle that effectively revitalizes the idiom for the 21st century.
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2007 The Music Box