He and She
Blue Note Records
It may be hard to recall by now, but there was a time when the musical fates and tastes of the primary Marsalis brothers—Wynton and Branford—were more closely aligned. A quarter century ago, young lion Wynton’s post-Miles Davis Quintet-style band featured Branford and drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts (a longtime member/soulmate of Branford’s ongoing quartet), producing a muscular and luminous sound worth knowing and loving, especially at a time when jazz was in dire need of a reawakening.
All these years later, the siblings have long since gone in distinctly separate artistic directions, a state of things clearly delineated by comparing their respective recent projects. Both are small-group settings, but while Wynton goes deep into jazz historicist models and courts conceptualism on He and She, Metamorphosen finds Branford and his dazzling, taut and time-honed band—with Watts, pianist Joey Calderazzo and bassist Eric Revis—simply doing what they do, in more of a post-Coltrane quartet manner, putting forth what may be this band’s finest outing to date. At the risk of simplifying, Wynton’s latest is more about thought-out gestures and compositional thinking, Branford’s more about acting, about the heat of play and interplay.
Wynton’s He and She, his spin on the timeless theme of romantic interactions and frictions, finds the trumpeter-composer delving deeper into thematic-driven and text-based projects. Snippets of poetry, recited with Wynton’s easy, flowing cadences and timbre, are interwoven into the musical fabric, framed by an opening 12-second fragment of the full five-minute “He and She” poem serving as a finale to the album. Eloquent as the poetic texts are, mixing his love of W.B. Yeats with American grit and archival wit, there remains the stubborn hobgoblin of spoken-word elements in a musical setting: After a first listen, we’d rather program the CD player to skip over the narrated tracks.
Notes trump words, however well-conceived and spoken. Fluidity and variety, within the established Wynton-ian vocabulary of musical references, prevail, from the infectious syncopated head of “Sassy” to the extended, expansive landscape of “The Razor Rim” (with Wynton and tenor saxist Walter Blanding in fine soloist fettle) and the warming waltz time of “Girls!” A mini-suite within the whole covers a range of emotional and stylistic suggestion with “First Crush,” “First Slow Dance,” “First Kiss” and, finally, the dynamic gambit of “First Time,” an insinuating rumba with a madly flurrying chromatic melody line implying the surge and savor dichotomy of the piece.
Metamorphosen is less a concept album than a portrait of the “artist” as a mature band. There may be no better introduction on record to what makes this group one of the finest in jazz at the moment, whose sense of ensemble interchange, especially between Marsalis and Watts, has been polished and continually re-fired over many years together.
Beyond the playing aspect, the album’s compositional character stands apart. Watts’ gifts as a unique songwriter are on display here, with his wily post-postbop tune “The Return of the Jitney Man” and snaky, odd-metered meditation “Samo ©” serving as opening and closing framing devices for the album. Bop morphs into something new and 21st-century-like in Branford’s quick, quixotic “Jabberwocky,” with the leader stretching out on alto sax. Calderazzo, as fiery and hard-listening as the next guy in this band as a player, supplies two impressively ruminative ballads, “The Blossom of Parting” and “The Last Goodbye.” Revis’ hypnotic “Abe Vigoda” moves sideways into an area of angular, intervallic cubism.
If John Coltrane is something of a natural paradigm in the musical DNA of this band, so is Thelonious Monk, he of deceptively quirky ingenuity and slinky brainstorming. On this song set, the band’s inventive redux arrangement of Monk’s “Rhythm-a-Ning” is shadowed by Revis’ bow to Monk, “Sphere.”
As gene pools go, the Marsalis family continues to dress and impress. These latest progress reports from the brothers’ work, in distinct and different ways and with creative attitudes from various corners, contribute to the cultural riches of jazz.