The fabled Marsalis technical dexterity is on full display here, as is the characteristic meld of pop-culture accessibility and high-art aspiration (“Brer Rabbit” was the closing theme of the ABC miniseries Moon Over Miami; “Lost in the Crescent,” a reprise of Marsalis’ earlier “The Beautyful Ones,” is an antebellum fable set to music that derives from influences as varied as Brahms’ “Symphony No. 3” and Bill Withers’ “Ain’t No Sunshine”). The presence of Elvin Jones provides deep rhythmic texture and indefatigable swing throughout, but it also fits snugly into the ongoing Marsalis agenda of honoring jazz innovators in a context that recasts them as standard-bearers of tradition—a kind of stealth conservatism summed up here by Marsalis’ observation in the liner notes that “Elvin Jones, the most modern of modern percussionists, listened to Louis (Pops) Armstrong relentlessly.”
Elvin Jones, ur-neocon? That characterization all too eloquently reveals this set’s most crippling limitation: In the spirit made (in)famous by brother Wynton, Marsalis sounds mostly determined to recodify erstwhile radical innovations—bop, postbop, even a few tentative stabs at Trane-ish freedom seeking—and transform them into paradigms of propriety.
Thus, despite their undeniable improvisational flair, Marsalis and his mates—including brother Branford on tenor, Donald Harrison on alto and the ever-dependable Mulgrew Miller on piano—mostly probe, tickle, prod and swing themselves into sanctuaries free of uncertainty or rough edges, resting comfortably atop the cushiony billows provided by Jones instead of using them as springboards. This is especially noticeable in Branford’s work: Despite his encouragingly astringent tonality, his willingness to break the boundaries of conventional harmony, and his welcome refusal to submit to sentimentality, he never escapes the restrictive framework that’s been built around him. Like the overall project itself, most of his playing here sounds not like something new and terrible being born, but something tried and true draped in newborn drag.