Braggtown, named for the neighborhood in Durham, N.C., where Branford Marsalis lives, is his strongest album since 2000’s Contemporary Jazz. The saxophonist has taken some detours in the past several years—covering the legends on Footsteps of Our Fathers, finding inspiration in paintings on Romare Bearden Revealed and turning to balladry on Eternal. All of those albums were fine. But here Marsalis returns to the formula in which his long-running quartet excels.
The mood is varied, but it begins and ends with a pair of 14-minute burners that feature dynamic, passionate work from Marsalis and his ever-exciting rhythm section of pianist Joey Calderazzo, bassist Eric Revis and drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts. Sheets of sound, furious runs by Marsalis—the quartet sounds at times like the heir to John Coltrane’s great group. Respectful, four-way conversations give way to tense arguments, and the atmosphere can change quickly, like a fast-moving storm. Marsalis’ tenor and Watts’ sticks battle madly and Revis saws maniacally during a stretch of free improvisation on “Black Elk Speaks.” Thunderous drums pound to a fast walking bass on “Blakzilla,” as Calderazzo lays down thick, contrapuntal chords and Marsalis blows complex solos full of unexpected side trips.
There are tender moments, too. Marsalis fills his horn with emotions—longing, regret, desire—on the quartet’s graceful interpretation of 17th-century composer Henry Purcell’s “O, Solitude,” and he extracts nothing but loveliness from his soprano sax on “Hope,” a plot-filled ballad that feels like a great tragedy, swirling and swelling into a Shakespearean climax.