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Branford Marsalis: Footsteps of Our Fathers

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Among the more telltale signs of a shifting recording industry was the announcement, early this year, that Branford Marsalis’ longstanding relationship with Columbia had come to an close-and that the saxophonist would be founding his own label, the Boston-based Marsalis Music. Now come the first fruits of independence: ironically, an album devoted to the achievements of masters past. But tradition has always been Marsalis’ currency, despite varying rates of exchange. So the four fathers he celebrates here-Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman and John Lewis-are in fact forefathers, and their legacy, a kind of musical DNA, courses quietly throughout Marsalis’ oeuvre. For proof, check “Giggin’,” the Coleman ditty that opens the disc; its buoyant theme, doubled on soprano saxophone and piano, clearly evokes Marsalis’ own “Wolverine” (recorded on the excellent Crazy People Music a dozen years ago). And Lewis’ “Concorde,” a staple of the Modern Jazz Quartet repertoire, explores a propulsive minor-key idea not unlike moments on Trio Jeepy (1988).

But Footsteps hardly seems hemmed in by the past-Marsalis’ or anyone else’s-because the guiding principle isn’t repertory so much as personality. This is never clearer than on the album’s most audacious statements: soup-to-nuts renditions of Rollins’ “Freedom Suite” and Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme.” As any jazz fan can attest, this is loaded stuff. Dedicated listeners will probably find it disconcerting to hear these opuses revisited so faithfully-all the more so because Marsalis, despite obvious burdens of influence, somehow manages to claim them as his own. His “Freedom Suite” expresses not only a deep homage to Rollins’ voice, but also a thorough understanding of what the tenor colossus was saying. Similarly, Marsalis’ versions of “Acknowledgment” and “Pursuance” adopt a Coltrane ethos without copping his sound (or, for that matter, his eminently lift-worthy turns of phrase). Here and throughout the disc, Marsalis explores the sharp-cornered abandon that has always distinguishing his playing-and it seems more focused on Foosteps than on all but his best prior efforts.

The band, meanwhile, steps up in no small way: pianist Joey Calderazzo provides the perfect foil, bassist Eric Revis seems rooted in stone and drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts destroys everything he touches. Their contributions as a group are what prevent this album from being a repertory project, collecting dust motes on a shelf. No, Footsteps is about momentum-the movement of a journeyman who forges on without forgetting where he’s been.

Originally Published