Born into a family with an estimable legacy in the annals of jazz, Branford Marsalis has always done that legacy proud and never more so than through his conception of Marsalis Music. Conceived, according to noted jazz critic Bob Blumenthal (who works hand in hand on various projects under the MM aegis), as a homage to the profound influence of jazz on culture at large, the saxophonist sees the enterprise as a work in progress encompassing more than just recordings of himself and various members of his band. Marsalis Music also aims for the preservation of jazz as a living breathing art form.
Little wonder then, that Branford introduced Marsalis Music to the world with his debut album on the label Footsteps of Our Fathers. Comprised of four pieces by literal legends of jazz' "Sonny Rollins, Ornette Coleman John Coltrane and John Lewis'" the CD set the tone for albums to come in more ways than one. Notwithsanding its solemn tone, Marsalis and his quartet plunge into the music with an abandon that displays reverence for the authors and their music but a full-bodied confidence in their own abilities. Likewise, the follow-up, Romare Bearden Revealed : as related by Blumenthal, the album was a creative impulse to a planned archive of the recordings that Branford decided to interpret himself. The result is a rollicking session full of the jubilance of New Orleans jazz, climaxing with the curveball of guitarist Doug Wamble slippin' and slidin' on bottleneck guitar.
As these recordings call to mind the great jazz of the Fifties and sixties, in particular the Atlantic sessions, in their pristine recording quality and unadorned production, so Marsalis Music's distribution arrangement with Rounder Records dovetails with the long-range concept. As Blumenthal tells it, the well-established New England independent was more than happy to include a bonafide jazz artist's stable in its family of labels; with a commitment to getting the discs into the marketplace, Brand ford could also count on Rounder to maintain his catalog in print, unlike the common practice of larger labels who are all to willing to cutout a title if it doesn't meet minimum sales figures.
Imprinted with the likeness of a vinyl record, CD's from Marsalis Music are often enclosed in a slipcase giving the package, with its extensive liner notes, both the look and feel of a first-run book worth including in your permanent library. And that premise fits Branford's ambition of preservation of the music called jazz, an ambition that encompasses Marsalis Jams, a project spearheaded by Bob Blumenthal that arranges for established jazz bands to appear a colleges to perform for, and improvise on stage with, fledgling jazzers at the school.
Little of which would matter so much or carry so much weight if it weren't for the high standards set by the figurehead of the venture; Branford Marsalis' latest release Eternal is worthy of inclusion on anyone's "Best of 2004' list, consisting as it does of impeccable readings of a CD's worth of ballads, rendered with the patience of musicians who test their mettle with this most difficult challenge of all and found themselves up to that challenge.
Pianist Joey Calderazzo is a member of that quartet whose album under his own name is a self-challenge of is own. A CD of solo piano recorded for optimum sound in a Toronto performance hall, bookended with rollicking stride-like jump pieces, the heart of Haiku is of a piece with the Marsalis Quartet recordings in its deep feeling and attention to detail. Calderazzo recorded a string of fine albums for Blue Note a few years ago and this disc is a worthy addition to his own canon and that of Marsalis Music.
As much as Branford created Marsalis Music a tribute to the past, Blumenthal makes the point that he is constantly moving forward as he looks ahead for new ways to add to the legacy of jazz music. Little wonder then that this past fall gave us a DVD of a recording of Coltrane's A Love Supreme , the main extra feature of which is a cd of the very same live recordings from the European concerts; it's a testament to the foundation of Marsalis Music that this should be offered as part of the package, but whether you hear it in audio or see the video, it's hard not be struck by the lack of pretense on the part of Branford and his band.
Just at the beginning of the performance itself, you're struck by the deep anticipation the whole band seems to feel at the import of playing this piece: marshalling their intensity as Branford begins to solo over Jeff "Tain"? Watts rumbling mallet rolls is the precursor to close to an hour of swirling rhythm, rippling piano and impassioned sax playing that, far from sounding imitative, is, quite simply, the work of a great jazz band playing a great jazz composition.
Displaying all the passion with which he imbues his other original work, Branford and Co. don't just pay homage to the late saxophone giant, but bring their own personality and character to the piece. Significantly, the spiritual aspect of the music manifests itself fully in the playing after having been discussed at length during Branford's interview with Alice Coltrane on disc one; this segment is featured as an extra on the DVD along with snippets of dialogue with the rest of the quartet that simultaneously provides insight into Coltrane's profound piece and piques your curiosity about it. This footage, made somewhat disconcerting by its abrupt editing, dovetails with some tour footage that imbues the grand ambition underlying Marsalis Music with the down-to-earth perspective of the working musician to. As such, the DVD is something of a microcosm for the whole venture: let it be your starting point, not just an end in itself.
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Tracks: 1. A Love Supreme, Part 1; 2. A Love Supreme, Part 2: Resolution; 3. A Love Supreme, Part 3: Pursuance; 4. A Love Supreme, Part 4: Psalm
Personnel: Branford Marsalis, Saxophones; Joey Calderazzo, Piano; Eric Revis, Bass; Jeff "Tain" Watts, Drums