Taken together these two CDs chronicle Branford Marsalis' 20-year recording career as a leader, documenting his ascent as one of the most recognized artists of his generation. There is much excellent music on both discs, but because they are so fundamentally different in temperament it is very likely that many fans who are totally enthralled with one will feel much less so about the other. Eternal
, the saxophonist's most recent release on Marsalis Music, while not a ballads record in the strictest sense of the term, is a focused romantic effort. The Steep Anthology
is a compilation assembling (somewhat haphazardly) songs from 9 of his 15 Columbia jazz albums (plus a previously unreleased version of "Evidence" recorded live at the Village Vanguard). The former is soft, smooth and contemplative, the latter, edgy, energetic and extroverted.
The Steep Anthology
Marsalis (who had a rare week run at the Vanguard last month), like most of the horn players of his day, initially focused on developing the technique needed to play up-tempo and there is some smoking sax on the anthology. More recently he has mastered the difficult art of playing ballads and Eternal reveals the newly acquired skill and with it the saxophonist's ability to create music of great emotional depth. The Steep Anthology covers a 15-year period (1983-98) and features Marsalis in a variety of settings - duo, trio, quartet, quintet and sextet. The best tracks, "Doctone", "Evidence", "Spartacus" and "Cain and Abel", not surprisingly are by his early working quartet with the late Kenny Kirkland and Jeff "Tain" Watts, with brother Wynton joining the group on the last tune. Two pianoless trio selections "No Backstage Pass" and "The Dark Keys" show off the leader's intensity and dark affecting tone . A quartet rendition of "Royal Garden Blues" (with Larry Willis) and the sextet dedication "Sidney In Da Haus" (with Wes Anderson and Wynton) both pay tribute to the leader's New Orleans roots, but it is on the two duo selections, "Maria", with father Ellis Marsalis on piano and "Three Little Words", with bassist Milt Hinton, that the saxophonist forecasts the new albums' mood.
Eternal includes seven beautiful selections - three classic ballads - two associated with Nat King Cole, "The Ruby and the Pearl" and "Dinner For One Please, James", the other, "Gloomy Sunday", unforgettably linked to Billie Holiday. They are complemented with individual contributions from each of the quartet members - Jeff "Tain Watts' pensive "Reika's Loss", Joey Calderazzo's stirring "The Lonely Swan", Eric Revis' pretty "Muldoon" and the leader's title track, a moving dedication to his wife that softly exudes tenderness and romance. From the opening Spanish-tinged strains of "Ruby", Marsalis' maturation is clearly evident, both in his relaxed approach to rhythm and the fullbodied lushness of his soprano's sound. His tenor's tone has grown also, radiating a calmness that only comes with age. There is a quiet intensity and depth to everyone's playing here that is satisfying and enduring. The Steep Anthology is a satisfactory overview of Marsalis' early years; Eternal documents the present and gazes into his future.
The Steep Anthology
Tracks: 1 Doctone Marsalis 6:09; 2 Maria Bernstein, Sondheim 6:10; 3 Royal Garden Blues Williams, Williams 7:05; 4 Evidence [live/#] Monk 9:28; 5 Cain & Abel Marsalis 7:48; 6 Spartacus Marsalis 8:17; 7 No Backstage Pass Marsalis 6:48; 8 Sidney in da Haus Marsalis 6:34; 9 The Dark Keys Marsalis 10:42; 10 Three Little Words Kalmar, Ruby 5:08
Personnel: Wessell Anderson Alto Sax; Ron Carter Bass; Al Foster Drums; Milt Hinton Bass; Robert Hurst Bass; Kenny Kirkland Piano; Branford Marsalis Soprano, Tenor Saxophone; Ellis Marsalis Piano; Wynton Marsalis Trumpet; Eric Revis Bass; Reginald Veal Bass; Jeff "Tain" Watts Drums; Larry Willis Piano
Tracks: 1 The Ruby and the Pearl Evans, Livingston 8:55; 2 Reika's Loss Watts 7:53; 3 Gloomy Sunday Javor, Lewis, Seress 12:43; 4 The Lonely Swan Calderazzo 9:05; 5 Dinner for One Please, James Carr 8:02; 6 Muldoon Revis 4:16; 7 Eternal Marsalis 17:42
Personnel: Branford Marsalis,Tenor and Soprano Saxophone; Joey Calderazzo Piano; Eric Revis Bass; Jeff "Tain" Watts, Drums