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Branford Marsalis Quartet: Braggtown

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There's a huge difference between live jazz performances and studio jazz recordings. Neatly concise pieces that thrill on record can feel overly cautious on the stage, and stretched-out open forms that make audiences hoarse from cheering can simply be boring on CD. That's not to say that the only good jazz recordings feature tight arrangements and brief solos. There is, however, a deep and real divide between the two presentations, and on record, less can be more.

Once in a while, though, more is more. Saxophonist Branford Marsalis' Braggtown, with his longstanding quartet of pianist Joey Calderazzo, bassist Eric Revis and drummer Jeff "Tain Watts, shouldn't work. While Marsalis' last release, Eternal (Marsalis Music, 2004), showcased the softer side of his group, Braggtown is a more mixed bag of hard and soft material, from the wrenching interrupted-groove tenor soul-pummel of "Black Oak Speaks to the Wagner-inspired soprano balladry of "Fate. And with the exception of Marsalis' "Sir Roderick, the Aloof, which clocks in at a mere six minutes, all the songs are long, especially the bookending fourteen-minute opuses "Jack Baker and "Black Oak Speaks.

It's to the group's credit that one can't imagine these pieces being shorter. "Jack Baker is a case in point. It's impossible to hear the leader chewing on the hypnotically repeating theme phrase over Watts' hard-swinging, polyrhythmic attack and Calderazzo's shimmering, ecstatic piano lines and not think of John Coltrane's classic quartet. The resemblance is far from accidental, of course. But the greatness of the performance derives from a usually forgotten element of any Trane homage: intensity. There's a feeling here of an almost hysterical urgency, a need on the part of the players to get these notes out. You'll hear it in Marsalis' keening, melismatic solo, where he seems to be shaking the notes from his horn as the band combusts alongside him in full burnout mode—but then, that intensity is nearly ubiquitous on Braggtown.

There's no brevity whatsoever in that solo. But the songs here actually benefit from length; aggressive workouts like "Blakzilla, "Jack Baker and "Black Elk Speaks have an almost raga-like sense of undirected direction; they go from here to there, but one senses the musicians' cheerful uncertainty as to how they're going to reach their destination.

The ballads are just as good. Calderazzo's "Hope is a gorgeous piece with a sweetly resolving melody, perfectly phrased by the leader on soprano over Watts' sussurating cymbal work. Calderazzo's piano break goes beyond any notion of rubato playing—it almost seems to stop time completely before the leader pulls the performance back into tempo over Watts' earthquake rolls. Marsalis' punchy, adamant soprano style has always made him the soprano saxophonist of choice for those who find the straight horn too wimpy or florid, and his composition "Fate is every bit as affecting and melodically memorably a soprano ballad as "Hope —which is very strong praise.

Marsalis' body of recorded music is immense, but this is one of his very best efforts. Recommended.

Track Listing: Jack Baker; Hope; Fate; Blakzilla; O Solitude; Sir Roderick, the Aloof; Black Elk Speaks.

Personnel: Branford Marsalis: saxophones; Joey Calderazzo: piano; Eric Revis: bass; Jeff "Tain" Watts: drums.

Title: Braggtown | Year Released: 2006 | Record Label: Marsalis Music


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