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Branford Marsalis: Requiem

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illustration of Branford Marsalis

The title might have added the parenthetical For Kenny in tribute to the late, great pianist Kenny Kirkland. His presence is key to this music-Branford’s finest to date-and will be sorely missed on both musical and personal levels. Kirkland’s urgent comping and well-spun right-hand lines invigorate the uptempo burners here while his empathetic playing on balladic numbers, like Marsalis’ beautiful “A Thousand Autumns,” speaks softly with uncommon eloquence. Like all great artists, Kirkland ups the ante by his mere presence on the bandstand or in the studio, and Marsalis responds in kind with equal parts passion and grace.

Requiem marks the first time that Marsalis has recorded with a quartet since 1990’s Crazy People Music, which also featured Kirkland on piano and Jeff “Tain” Watts on drums. Bassist Eric Revis replaces Bob Hurst, who in 1992 left with Branford for The Tonight Show and never looked back. Meanwhile, the elder Marsalis brother is back with a vengeance, pushing the envelope even further from his last Columbia outing, The Dark Keys. Attribute that extra little nudge to Kirkland, the McCoy Tyner of his generation.

Branford’s love of Trane is obvious from the outset. His bold tone and remarkable fluency on tenor are matched by a driving momentum and an abundance of ideas on the energized “Cousin Mary”-like opener “Doctone,” a nickname for the late Kirkland. Paul Motian’s haunting “Trieste” is treated with a Middle Eastern flavor on the opening rubato section with Branford blowing shenai-ish lines on soprano before resolving to the gentle but melancholy theme. The piece changes course with Kirkland’s buoyant piano solo against Watts’ briskly swinging brushwork and picks up steam as Tain switches to sticks and starts cutting up the beat with abandon while keeping the swinging pulse intact. Branford enters the fray with some signature soaring soprano work, drawing on Watts’ energy and reacting to his accents on toms and snare along with Kirkland’s comping.

“Lykief” is a clear nod to Keith Jarrett’s early ’70s work on Impulse. It carries a similar rhapsodic sweep with repeated blues-gospel-folkish figures and develops into an open-ended, highly visceral vehicle which allows Watts to fully explore the kit with brushes and sticks while Kirkland and Revis provide the tether.

“Bullworth,” a reference to Warren Beatty’s socio-politico comedy of the same name about a savvy politician who seeks redemption through hip-hop culture, is sparked by Tain’s heavy backbeats and Revis’ big-toned groove. Again, Branford flies on soprano, this time keying into the underlying funk factor by affecting a kind of jaunty attitude. Midway through, the piece nimbly slides from backbeat motif to relaxed midtempo swing feel and then back on the goodfoot. Kirkland’s solo here is appropriately spikey in response to Branford’s puckish energy.

After some introductory stop-time statements, “Elysium” flows along on Watts’ inimitable uptempo swing momentum, which Revis taps directly into. Branford jumps on that runaway train (Trane) with aplomb, blowing with typical authority and fluency on tenor. There are some quirky tempo shifts before Tain breaks loose with one of his patented, ferocious solos.

The poignant ballad “Cassandra” is another example of Marsalis’ lyrical, floating quality on soprano and Kirkland’s uncommon sensitivity at the keys. Tain’s brushwork is both interactive and alluring while Kirkland again reminds us of his rare gift with a particularly moving solo here. The joyful closer “16th St. Baptist Church” interweaves a menacing bass groove with an infectious New Orleans brass band beat and is topped off with some sly cat-and-mouse play between Kirkland’s piano and Branford’s tenor.

Losing a valued sideman is an obvious setback to any bandleader’s plans. Losing a longtime friend is another matter entirely. Marsalis will find a replacement for Kirkland in his current quartet and go forward with this music, watching it develop on the road. That situation can be fixed. The personal blow is a much deeper wound and may take a lifetime to heal. For Marsalis, Watts and Terence Blanchard-all of whom featured Kirkland prominently on recent Columbia releases-their musical triumphs this year will no doubt be tinged with bittersweet memories.

Originally Published