Now approaching 50, tenor and soprano saxophonist Branford Marsalis stands alongside Herbie Hancock, Dave Brubeck, Sonny Rollins, McCoy Tyner and younger brother Wynton as one of the few mainstream jazz stars whose name even people with little or no interest in jazz recognize.
He's also come a long way from the days when he and Wynton, members of a heralded New Orleans musical family that also includes pianist father Ellis and brothers Delfeayo (trombone) and Jason (drums), exploded onto the jazz scene as the most visible members of the so-called "young lions" movement — twentysomethings more interested in the bop of the '40s and avant-garde of the '50s than the soul-jazz of the '60s or fusion and rock of the '70s and '80s.
Indeed, Marsalis, who brings his quartet to town Friday night for a sold-out concert at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center as part of the Adams and Reese series, rivals his Pulitzer Prize-winning sibling in terms of importance and pedigree. Since 1985, when the Marsalises stopped playing together regularly (and Branford also issued his first release Scenes in the City), he's steadily made his own headlines. From playing, recording and touring with Sting, Public Enemy, Bela Fleck, Bruce Hornsby and the Grateful Dead to leading the Tonight Show band back when Jimmy Kimmel wouldn't dare badmouth Jay Leno on his own show, Branford Marsalis has managed the tough task of maintaining credibility among jazz purists while constantly experimenting and varying his approach.
He's become equally important as an advocate for roots music without seeming shrill or dated. He founded the Marsalis Music record label in 2002 as a sanctuary for artists to cut what they pleased without being pressured to crank out instrumental pop for mass consumption. Marsalis Music has issued everything from tribute works to master jazz composers to sparkling Afro-Latin material by MacArthur genius award winner Miguel Zenón during its tenure.
Marsalis serves as the model for contemporary jazz artists concerned with legacy, yet also interested in having audience members under the age of 60. He maintains Facebook and MySpace pages, has been a guest judge on Top Chef, and manages to avoid the accusatory rhetoric that embitters fans of other musical styles.
His concern for issues beyond the bandstand is also prominent. Most recently, he co-founded (with fellow New Orleans native Harry Connick Jr.) New Orleans Habitat Village, an enterprise dedicated to maintaining the spirit and history of classic Crescent City culture, including aiding fellow New Orleans musicians while also preserving that city's vintage sensibility.
Marsalis arrives in Nashville fresh off a recent classical tour — he's been playing with classical orchestras and cutting records in that idiom nearly as long as he's done jazz — while issuing last March another critically acclaimed recording, Metamorphosen, which celebrates the 10th anniversary of his working quartet.
The roster of Marsalis on saxophones, pianist Joey Calderazzo, bassist Eric Revis and drummer Jeff "Tain" Watts (who'll be replaced for the Nashville engagement by Justin Faulkner) could be considered this generation's version of the Coltrane quartet or bands led in earlier decades by Charles Mingus, Ornette Coleman or Miles Davis.
These are genuine groups, not all-star ensembles or jam session aggregations thrown together for a series of quick engagements. The Marsalis quartet embodies another key aspect of Marsalis' philosophy towards improvisation and performance. He's always been far more interested in original composition than reworking standards, and his best releases like "Braggtown" in 2006, "Eternal" in 2003 or his 2000 Grammy winning work "Contemporary Jazz" emphasize his band's collective vision as much, if not more than, the members' individual brilliance.
While definitely influenced by such giants such as Rollins, Coleman, Coltrane and, to a lesser degree, Lester Young and Don Byas, Marsalis doesn't restrict himself to any particular school or style. He'll sometimes perform serene, sentimental or jovial solos, then follow them with the furious, twisting passages, intricate chord changes and spiraling progressions that terrify jazz newcomers. But the band is well versed in many idioms, including Latin and Brazilian music, plus funk, the blues and occasionally rap and hip-hop.
A prime example of Marsalis and his band's versatility and cohesive sound is evident throughout Metamorphosen. Calderazzo's "The Blossom of Parting" and Reavis' "Sphere" are extensive works with spirited solos that highlight each member's strengths. Calderazzo is an expressive, imaginative accompanist and equally exciting soloist, Reavis a solid, rhythmically dazzling bassist, and Watts, a friend of Marsalis since their student days at Berklee, a master at rippling, varied textures, beats and settings.
The challenging "Jabberwocky" (a 19-bar work that also features Marsalis' first recorded foray on alto sax in nearly 20 years) and the lighthearted "Abe Vigoda" showcase the group's penchant for competitive flurries and whirling interaction.
"My father likes to call recordings documents," Marsalis says on his website, "and I know what he means. They document how good you are, or how good you aren't." Metamorphosen is exemplary work from a legitimate jazz great who hasn't let adulation or time slow his desire for artistic growth, and a prime showcase for a band that continues making masterful music.
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