Branford Marsalis Revels In Jazz's Timeless Challenges On New Album

May 22, 2019
Originally published on May 23, 2019 8:45 am
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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Saxophonist Branford Marsalis has been leading a quartet for the past 20 years with only one personnel change. Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead says the Marsalis Quartet's new album shows they're still going strong.

(SOUNDBITE OF BRANFORD MARSALIS QUARTET'S "LIFE FILTERING FROM THE WATER FLOWERS")

KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: Branford Marsalis showing off his burnished tenor saxophone sound, which his other career playing classical music hasn't heard any. Marsalis isn't interested in breaking new ground. As he hears it - and he's not totally wrong - whatever fancy new wrinkle jazz musicians devise, someone else has already done. He's happy with jazz's ageless challenges, like improvising a graceful solo over shifting chords and lively rhythm, being creative while coloring within the lines.

(SOUNDBITE OF BRANFORD MARSALIS QUARTET'S "CIANNA")

WHITEHEAD: That's "Cianna" by pianist Joey Calderazzo, who wrote a couple of tunes for the Branford Marsalis Quartet's album "The Secret Between The Shadow And The Soul." A more playful side emerges on "Dance Of The Evil Toys" by band bassist Eric Revis, who elsewhere mixes with musicians who do seek out new wrinkles. The tune makes some sudden moves. The music gets out there a little but only in passing and almost tongue in cheek.

(SOUNDBITE OF BRANFORD MARSALIS QUARTET'S "DANCE OF THE EVIL TOYS")

WHITEHEAD: Branford Marsalis displaying some other saxophone colors. In the past, he's spoken of the 1970s as a low point for jazz. But apparently, it wasn't a total loss. Here he plays two tunes from that decade, including Andrew Hill's "Snake Hip Waltz." Its nattering repetitions make a good bird-call fit with Branford's piercing tone on soprano sax. And it's a good launchpad for a soloist finally freed from the maddening repeats.

(SOUNDBITE OF BRANFORD MARSALIS QUARTET'S "SNAKE HIP WALTZ")

WHITEHEAD: Justin Faulkner on drums, the band's new guy who joined a decade ago. It's always good to hear a group existing for 20 years that brings so much enthusiasm. Branford Marsalis and company all sound into it and on the same page, as on Keith Jarrett's 1974 earworm "The Windup." There, Marsalis toys with a riff from "Broadway Blues" by Ornette Coleman, a big influence on Jarrett, before restating Jarrett's melody. It's a good way to wind up the album - Branford Marsalis making a knowing connection and whooping it up at the same time.

(SOUNDBITE OF BRANFORD MARSALIS QUARTET'S "THE WINDUP")

GROSS: Kevin Whitehead writes for Point of Departure and The Audio Beat. He reviewed "The Secret Between The Shadow And The Soul," the new CD by the Branford Marsalis Quartet. Coming up, David Bianculli tells us about the live TV broadcast tonight recreating episodes of "All In The Family" and "The Jeffersons." That's after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALLEN TOUSSAINT'S "BRIGHT MISSISSIPPI") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.