Branford Marsalis

(Marsalis Music)

Review by Brad Walseth

Yes, this release is from 2006, but I just got my hands on a copy and have to say I can see why it made many best of lists from last year. I've always had faith in Branford, even when others (including his famous brother) dissed him for performing with Sting and doing the Tonight Show gig and acting in movies, etc. He had tremendous talent and although his albums were good and often quite interesting in their experimentation and merging of styles, it was thought they were often less focused then some would wish. This all changed in recent years, when he began to seriously emulate his forebears, Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane.

Therefore it is such a pleasure to listen to Braggtown, which may be Branford's best recording yet. Featuring a high-powered quartet of pianist Joey Calderazzo and bassist Eric Revis, the album is nonetheless propelled by Marsalis' incendiary playing backed by the creative work by drummer Jeff "Tain" Watts.

The intense "Jack Baker" starts things off at full steam and is a true highlight, with Marsalis burning hot tenor licks echoing Coltrane, while Watts provides enough firepower underneath to rival the bandleader. Calderazzos playing even sounds somewhat like McCoy Tyner's work with the classic Coltrane quartet.

As perhaps the best soprano sax player since Wayne Shorter, nearly half the album is filled with slow ballads like the delicate "Hope" that are in a similar vein to the music on his all ballad album "Eternal" (2004), and these pieces are lovely and emotional. No one else plays the soprano sax like this. In fact this instrument is notorious for being misused, but Branford is a master and the lines he coaxes from his sax during the climax of this song are entrancing.

"Fate" adds a bit of a Latin touch to another slower tempo ballad that features a wonderful Calderazzo solo and some long lyrical lines from Marsalis. Watts' "Blakzilla" lumbers powerfully in 13/8 with Revis and Watts laying down the rhythm and allowing Marsalis to blow Coltrane-inspired (but not stolen) licks. Featuring another stellar drum solo by Watts, one of the best and most creative drummers of the current era, this tune is heart-pounding and satisfying with another great solo by Tain.

The classical and jazz worlds meet on Henry Purcell's "O Solitude," and reminds one of just how multi-talented Branford has always been. Like his brother Wynton, he seems equally at home in either genre, turning this piece into a haunting mixture of styles. "Sir Roderick, the Aloof" is like its title, a bit odd, but charming anyway, with nice solos by Revis and Calderazzo and of course, Marsalis on soprano.

Finally, the album ending "Black Elk Speaks" is a powerful composition full of righteous anger and energy. The entire band attacks relentlessly until the middle section when Calderazzo takes an extended solo that moves from highly-original tonal adventures back into more of a straight ahead jazz feel in a very creative manner. Revis takes a beautifully brutal solo while chanting "Today is a beautiful day to die" before plunging back into the main theme and ending on a long cry on Marsalis' tenor. Heady, aggressive stuff that is well worth the trip to Braggtown.

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