Branford Marsalis Quartet
Moving away from the melancholy that infused the ballads on their pervious release Eternal, the Branford Marsalis Quartet casts their net wide, showing a broad range of influences, emotions, and sounds.
“Jack Baker” is an ambitious opening song. Rather than approaching the listener with something familiar and comfortable, the quartet challenges the listener to follow them on their journey. This 14-minute epic finds Marsalis rendering a controlled, wailing sax in the late period style of his hero John Coltrane. The song’s origins stem from a conversation between Marsalis and pianist Joey Calderazzo. Marsalis explains, “We were talking about how musicians try to write tunes with ‘a Coltrane sound,’ and my point was that too many simply use scales without the blues licks that Coltrane would have used. It’s easy to just write a scale, but that won’t create a group experience, which is the purpose of writing for a band. So I started writing and ‘Jack Baker’ just came out.”
The sax repeats a theme while the rest of the band plays around it, creating a rhythm though they sound as if they are all taking the lead. After the initial opening, the sax fades away. The piano, frolicsome and melodic, dances around with Jeff “Tain” Watts’ drums, while Eric Revis’ bass lays down a fine beat. The sax returns, a bee buzzing around a flower. Marsalis finds a new line to take before the piano gives way. He continues the dance with the drums, delivering a controlled chaos. Calderazzo hits a few bars, cautious steps to test the waters, before rejoining the fray. The drums are marching and a smattering of cymbals signals every to step back as Watts performs a powerful, two-minute drum solo, before the band concludes the piece with a reprise of the opening theme.
The album shifts gears with “Hope” written by pianist Joey Calderazzo. Marsalis’ soprano sax creates a sweeter, melodic sound. The piano is soft underneath, and when combined with the soft brush strokes on the cymbals, they allow you to visualize dawn arriving. Calderazzo almost solos as the rhythm section’s occasional embellishments are barely noticed. The music swells during the final third. The sax returns, singing triumphantly, and the rest of the band flourishes, before concluding with the quiet coda of the sun of the light giving way to the night. Marsalis’ “Fate,” based on a Wagner leitmotiv, is performed in a similar vein, although the sax leads more and the band plays within a smaller dynamic.
The big bluster comes back with the unleashing of Watts’ “Blakzilla”, inspired by Akira Ifukube’s score to Godzilla(1953). The drums and cymbals clatter like tumultuous waters. Marsalis is back on the tenor and continues his Coltrane motif. It’s a large, lumbering number. The bass is brought to the forefront as the band roars through, unstoppable. At the halfway point, Calderazzo takes over for Marsalis. The drums increase in volume due to from being hit harder, later followed by all three instruments played with short, purposeful strokes. The song closes with great interplay between Watts and Revis, before the quartet returns to the theme.
The album’s pattern is repeated and “Blakzilla” is followed by two quieter, more melodic numbers. “O Solitude” is by 17th Century English composer Henry Purcell. Revis repeats a creeping bass line that the tenor sax and piano play around. “Sir Roderick, the Aloof” was originally created as a duet for the soprano sax/piano duet although you wouldn’t know it. Less than a minute in the bass and drums take over, holding court before the piano returns a minute later. The sax disappears for half the song.
The final track is “Black Elk Speaks”, Revis’ tribute to the famous medicine man from the Oglala Lakota tribe. It continues and concludes the pattern. The band, especially Marsalis, chases the chaos, and the number segues into the avant garde of Ornette Coleman when Revis, who does some mean work with his bow, repeatedly shouts “a beautiful day to die.”
Braggtown is very good album for those with a serious interest in jazz. The quartet sounds great and it’s obvious these men are at the top of their game individually and as a group. It’s music that engages the listener through bombast as much as it does through subtlety. Marsalis describes it best, so I’ll defer to him. “This album is for people who truly like music, rather than simply liking to be entertained by music.”