Sometimes the smallest germ of an idea can generate grist for extended exploration. Many of the late saxophone giant John Coltrane's compositions from the early 1960s onward were proof of that. From the opening two bars of "Jack Baker, the first track on Braggtown
, it's clear that the same concept still applies. For nearly two minutes Branford Marsalis repeats the figure like a mantra, occasionally reharmonizing it, but ultimately returning back before the quartet settles into the energetic swing that defines a good fifty percent of the disc.
Marsalis has always been a powerful Coltrane-influenced soloist. But while Coltrane's classic quartet acts as a clear starting point for Marsalis' group with pianist Joey Calderazzo, bassist Eric Revis and drummer Jeff "Tain Watts, this is no mere imitation. Marsalis' solo on "Jim Baker ascends to Coltrane-like sheets of sound, but he's less relentless, backing off at times to let things breathe. Watts is as muscular as the late Elvin Jones ever was, but his solos possess a fluidity that contrasts with Jones' more sharply punctuated approach.
This group has been together for nearly a decade; Calderazzo replaced Kenny Kirkland after his tragic death in 1998. Marsalis' special chemistry with Watts dates farther back to his earliest days as a leader. Watts has emerged as a fine leader/composer in his own right, and his contribution to the disc, "Blakzilla, is another modal workout that takes Coltrane as a reference point. With a rubato intro recalling the opening of A Love Supreme (Impulse!, 1964), it opens up into a fiery solo section that again finds Marsalis at his most powerful. In contrast to McCoy Tyner's more full-throttled accompaniment with Coltrane, however, Calderazzo is considerably sparer here, though his choices are equally provocative.
Revis, for the most part, acts as a firm anchor. His "Black Elk Speaks," the most complex chart of the set, closes the record. The quartet moves in and out of time through the convoluted head, before moving into an almost impossibly up-tempo solo section that challenges everyone to keep up. His own solo is aggressive, punctuated with chordal shots before he picks up his bow and sounds as if he's sawing right through the bass as he paradoxically yells, "It's a beautiful day today!
Half of Braggtown may be devoted to the sheer power of Marsalis' quartet, but there's subtlety and beauty at work too, evidenced on Calderazzo's soft and evocative "Hope and Marsalis' more propulsive ballad, "Fate. Marsalis' arrangement of Henry Purcell's "O Solitude is further proof that this quartet can exercise restraint as much as energy, and Marsalis' "Sir Roderick, the Aloof acts as a bridge between the classicism of "O Solitude and Revis' more contemporary closer.
Along with bassist Dave Holland's quintet, Marsalis' group is one of the longest-running groups in jazz today. Braggtown is further evidence that when you have a winning combination, you don't mess with it.