Sunday, 14 September 2008

Branford Marsalis...

Time to go back to posting some CD reviews on a more regular basis. Things are still busy here, but after taking some time out because of a bad back/sciatica I'm getting back into the swing of things. I've even done my first bike ride in almost three weeks this morning, and it was incredibly hard work. Almost as hard as painting a house from top to bottom, which is what Louise is doing as I write this. Have I no shame?

Anyway, let's start this mini re-launch with a big one - a Branford Marsalis compilation. The Marsalis family tend to divide opinion, but most can agree that Branford is different to his pious and over-zealous siblings. Developing over the last two decades into a fine and forthright player with an open-minded outlook, he's now pushing the boundaries into late 'trane territory, and he's a damn sight more interesting than many of vaunted today's tenors.

Those collaborations with Sting are long in the past, and if you think Branford is tainted by them (from a purist's perspective) listen to some of his more recent quartet discs - Braggtown would be as good as any.

Easy to take for granted simply because he's so famous, I nevertheless like him...

The Steep Anthology
Columbia Legacy (512913-2)

Doctone; Maria; Royal Garden Blues; Evidence; Cain & Abel; Spartacus; No Backstage Pass; Sidney In Da Haus; The Dark Keys; Three Little Words.

Branford Marsalis (ss, ts) with various groups including Kenny Kirkland, Wynton Marsalis, Ellis Marsalis, Jeff “Tain” Watts, Larry Willis and Milt Hinton.
Recorded 1983 to 1996.

It’s easy to take Branford Marsalis for granted, easier still to overlook just how unique and commanding a voice he has on any of his chosen horns. Before I was even sent this new Columbia anthology I’d started to revisit his back catalogue and reappraise his work. His long flowing lines, deft rhythmic gymnastics, speed of thought, keen awareness of history, warm rounded tone and unerring ability to swing have put him at the top of his profession.

The ten selections on ‘The Steep Anthology’ (Steepy is a frequently self-referenced nickname) cheekily include a previously unissued live track, ‘Evidence’, presumably to entice completists to buy it. A ploy that would surely work for a Coltrane anthology, in Marsalis’ case it reeks of commercial opportunism, Columbia cashing in on a former star who has since flown the nest. Yet with a career spanning 15 years at the label, it’s hard to argue against the need for this type of release. It’s also hard to argue with the choices of music, though just as easy to pick alternative tracks from his consistently fine albums.

Limitations on playing time presumably de-selected his most free-flowing work with the piano-less trio that cut ‘Bloomington’ and ‘The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born’, and the sublime but lengthy reading of ‘The Peacocks’ from ‘Renaissance’ doesn’t make it either. With an emphasis on acoustic jazz we’re also denied ‘The Blackwidow Blues’ from ‘Buckshot LeFonque’, but for a fully rounded view we may have had to suffer some of his work with Sting, so let’s not complain.

Time may yet prove that Branford has taken the music in a more sustainable direction than his younger trumpet playing brother, and I certainly wish he were as influential on saxophonists as the all pervasive Michael Brecker. It’s time we all reappraised Branford, and this anthology is the ideal excuse. If you already have the albums on your shelves, simply dust off those scratched ‘80s jewel boxes, sit down with open ears, and appreciate his awesome talent.

Fred Grand
(Jazz Review, May 2004)

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