For ten years or so, since Crazy People Music back in 1990, Branford Marsalis has steered well clear of the definitive in Jazz. He's played sax with Sting, Tina Turner, and Gangstarr, led Jay Leno's Tonight Show band, toured with Dizzy, made movies with Danny De Vito, recorded Blues-based albums starring B B King and Lightnin' Hopkins, hosted an illuminating and influential National Public Radio Jazz programme in the US, even subbed for David Murray in the World Saxophone Quartet. What he has steadfastly refused to do is go back and revisit the piano-and saxophone led quartet that formedhis first solo outfit afetr leaving brother Wynton's band in the mid-Eighties.
And now, after reuniting with pianist Kenneth D Kirkland, whose outstanding work on Marsalis' Royal Garden Blues and Renaissance in the eighties fueled the saxophonist's bid for independence from his family's long shadow, we have a glimpse into a future that might have been. Kirkland's untimely death earlier this year came just weeks after these sessions were recorded (at the very end of 1998), and before the mixing process could sweeten or cloud the ideas and passion that drove his playing. As a result, there's an audible directness and unity of purpose in their co-leadership of the Quartet that leaves me yearning for more - and then remembering how lucky we are to have these eight tunes.
These are Kirkland's last recorded dates, and they do him proud. Kenny always played like a fountain - throwing gusts and arcs of music up into the wind, defying gravity or melancholy, always singing a kind of musical "ain't this fun" - and from the very first rhythm statement on Requiem his spirit swaggers across the soundstage. Written by Marsalis to elaborate one of Kirkland's signature sounds, his swinging comping behind singers and soloists from pop to classical, "Doctone" also sets out the Quartet's stall - liquid, effortless technique set free over charts that encompass bop, post-bop, fusion, pop and swing.
From this seductive beginning the warm, bear-hug muscular tone Kirkland and Marsalis adopt leaves room for bassist Eric Revis to double-time his way into the limelight without ever sounding forced or frantic, and as the band slide into a post-Jarrett interpretation of Paul Motian's Trieste that's redolent of North African sunsets and late-night navy town rumbles, their undoctored versatility shines through. The call to prayer, the call to arms and the call of love for sale are all in here, and Kirkland's sizzling technique in an extended solo tempts drummer Jeff Watts into one of his kitchen sink bravura workouts, as Branford slips smoothly in alongside.
Then a lyrical, complex and spacious reworking of A Thousand Autumns, a tune Marsalis originally wrote for Wayne Shorter, carries enough mood changes to soundtrack a short film, as Kirkland's romanticism is alternately spiked by Tain's evocative percussion, or soaked in dark rum by Marsalis. British ears will then be delighted by the astonishing Lykief - a sly Abdullah Ibrahim-style fusion of Township and Modern Jazz that lets the band's voices chase an irresistible melody around three or four distinct rythyms based on the same tempo. It's a little like strolling down a bush path between tropical villages, each playing its own version of a beloved party tune.
This is where Marsalis says he most wants his music to stand - a living, growing fusion style that builds empathy with the audience while challenging and reinventing forms at the same time. Take his rocksteady approach on Bullworth. From a distance listen out for the Joe Sample simple infectiousness of the melody, and a lick or tow of high-style technique over a foursquare fusion groove. It's so kicking that it may take a couple of outings to hear the 7/4 tempo that crops up unannounced, or the jigsaw interplay between Tain's itching drums and Kirkland's barroom, gut-bucket piano.
Three more originals from Marsalis flesh out a Spring must-buy. Branford has stepped two back to go three forward, and brother Delfeayo's practised, supportive production has pulled together a fitting last statement from Kirkland. There is no early warning of his death on these tracks, just the sound of a hot, creative musician flourishing in a hot, creative environment, captured largely live on analogue 24-track. The liner notes confess that the bass was nearly (but not) DI'ed, and Dolby SR snuck in on the two most spacious ballads. Tiny compromises that add, not diminish, a fine set that will keep supplying pleasure for years to come. An tribute worth hearing, particularly because it captures so cheerfully the energy, versatility and vitality of a much-missed man.