April 24, 2009

Shortcuts—Branford Marsalis Quartet

I had the good fortune to catch the Branford Marsalis Quartet’s concert at the Symphony Center last Friday. As the group started up a rather coquettish version of Thelonious Monk’s “Think of One,” it dawned on me then that I really knew nothing about this band, fronted by the eldest brother of the legendary Marsalis family.

This isn’t to say I was totally ignorant of Marsalis’s work. He’s done everything from concertos to big band, worked with everyone from Art Blakey, to Miles Davis, to Sting. But compared to his younger brother, Wynton, who heads Jazz at Lincoln Center, Branford has kept a comparatively low profile playing with his quartet for the past 10 years. But the concert made it clear that the Branford Marsalis Quartet is one of the tightest groups of jazz musicians working today. And the Quartet’s new release, Metamorphosen, is a technical, if not always subtle, tour de force.

The title, German for “metamorphosis,” was chosen to reflect that, while Marsalis and his quartet—pianist Joey Calderazzo, bassist Eric Revis, and drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts—have been together for nearly two decades, they have evolved both individually and as an ensemble. They show this on the record, whose tracks range from pseudo-classical ballads to funked-up covers of Thelonious Monk.

Each member of the quartet contributes personal compositions to the album. Both of Watts’s pieces are avant-garde; “Return of the Jitney Man” an airy bop track, and the other, “Samo,” a slinky, after-midnight funk tune. Revis’s best contributions are off-kilter tributes to Monk: “Sphere” and “And Then, He Was Gone.” Also excellent is the lone cover on the album, Monk’s “Rhythm-a-Ning” which staggers from double-time bop to half-time funk and serves as an improvisational vehicle for the group’s prodigious talent.

Calderazzo’s pieces may be the most difficult on the album to analyze. The ballads “The Blossom of Parting” and “The Last Goodbye” are composed beautifully. They draw from classical voice leading, which at times sound like Bach chorales, if Bach had written chorales for a jazz quartet. But at the same time, “The Blossom of Parting” has the tendency to sound as lugubrious as its title suggests, trudging along behind the rest of the album’s songs. “The Last Goodbye,” though, is a gem, sweetly despondent with a superbly lyrical solo by its composer.

The Branford Marsalis Quartet is many things—virtuosic, adept, cohesive—but humble is not one of them. At times this can be detrimental. Watts toys around with what seems like every drum and cymbal in his kit during the ballads instead of lightly brushing on snare and cymbal. Likewise, the technicality of Revis’s pieces detracts from their musicality. The chord changes are great, but I couldn’t hum to you the melody of either “Abe Vigoda” or “Sphere.”

But then there’s “Jabberwocky,” the only Marsalis-penned piece on the disc. The song is pure bop, its head (the main theme of a jazz composition) literally 16 straight bars of eighth-note runs. The track makes it apparent just how much the album is a product of a musician’s musician. Marsalis had become aware that it had been two years since his group had released an album, so he told his quartet they would record one in a month. Metamorphosen is not an ambitious project, but rather an exercise in group dexterity and cohesion. It’s a few guys jamming. That every member just so happens to slay on his instrument is a bonus.