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Four MFs Playin’ Tunes: Branford Marsalis Quartet

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Branford Marsalis is onto something here. In press notes, he explains, “We need to quit thinking of songs as vehicles and think of them as songs. … What we are trying to do is figure out the emotional purpose of each song … and then play according to that purpose.” Marsalis’ bands have always had chops to burn. Few ensembles have used songs as “vehicles” with more outrageous technical prowess. But often, in concert and on record, they paraded virtuosity at the expense of pacing. Art Blakey’s one-word description of jazz was “intensity.” Sometimes Marsalis believed it too much.

The new album is different because it contains more focused, unified development of specific song forms. There is still rarefied blowing by Marsalis on tenor and soprano saxophones and Joey Calderazzo on piano. But discipline creates a new musicality. The band members compose strong, varied tunes. When Calderazzo and Marsalis (on soprano) spill ecstatic solos on Calderazzo’s “The Mighty Sword,” they sound like they are always thinking of the song. “Brews,” by bassist Eric Revis, is an odd, teetering, tumbling exercise to which the band stays true. Calderazzo’s “As Summer Into Autumn Slips” is a long arc of luminous impressionism, carefully, patiently traced.

The two standards are surprising choices with concepts. “Teo” is rarely heard Monk. The piano solo is the Calderazzo style and the Monk style whipped up in a blender. Marsalis, channeling Charlie Rouse, chews off and spits tenor saxophone notes. “My Ideal” is a conscientious postmodern investigation into the melodic and harmonic implications of a quaint, hip song.

This band can still burn. Marsalis has a hot new young drummer, Justin Faulkner, who generates vast quantities of clean energy. “Endymion” and “Whiplash” are centered on each song’s “emotional purpose,” but that purpose is shock and awe. Art Blakey would approve.

Originally Published