Branford Marsalis, Not a Pianist In Sight

Nate Chinen’s fun retrospective of Branford Marsalis’ work with pianist Kenny Kirkland made me think of a piece I wrote about the saxophonist’s non-keyb stuff. Happily, I just came across this 1997 Village Voice review of The Dark Keys while cleaning the cellar last month. I was wrong and right about a few of its points (Branford’s Bloomington has less hot air than I mention below; it’s a pip, really). Maybe it will throw some wood on the fire for the current BM chat. Happy Birthday to the 50-year-old horn player.


As any parent who’s spent a Saturday afternoon at a tot-packed jungle gym might report, frolic and danger go hand in hand. To some degree, the dance around this duality is what you hear when saxophonists operate in a bass ‘n’ drums threesome. Without a piano guiding harmonic pathways, options explode, making the bandstand equal parts danger zone and playground. It may be a more liberating context for improvisers, but the possibility of blowing off course is always a hazard. The most articulate horn trios usually capitalize on both risks and rewards.

Trio albums have long had a special cache for saxophonists – they offer listeners a glimpse into the depth of an artist’s ingenuity while also revealing whether an ensemble conception is fertile or feeble. Over the past several weeks Branford Marsalis’ fourth trio outing, The Dark Keys,  has snaked its way onto my personal index of the better reed trio dates of the past decade or so. I’m talking about titles like Joe Henderson’s The State of the Tenor, Dave Holland’s Triplicate, David Murray’s The Hill, Kenny Garrett’s Triology and Steve Lacy’s The Window, for starts. In the past Branford as used the forum as a soapbox. One reason I don’t often return to 1993’s Bloomington, one of Marsalis’s previous trio outings, is because it ultimately sounds like a spiel. The act of declaiming often corrupts the content of any speech – see the early work of David S. Ware’s quartet for an example – it all begins to sound like predictable rhetoric.

On The Dark Keys Branford has made substantial progress in the realm of dynamics (and, you should know, so has David Ware on his latest disc, Dao). Some of the album’s stretches are sparse, contemplative; others are jammed with sound (both Kenny Garrett and Joe Lovano are on board with a track apiece), delirious with their own sense of hubbub. Drummer Jeff Watts is masterful  at segueing his cadences as well as interpreting their implicit connections. Bassist Reginald Veal is eloquent with both rumble and stroll. It’s an ensemble record, for sure, and as it goes about the business of demolishing the stereotype of its creator’s orthodoxy, it proves to be about flow.

To wit: not four minutes into the first cut we’ve got Branford rocking a furiously lyrical bash ‘n’ wheeze exchange with Watts – for a guy once pegged as neocon, it sure sounds like something from an FMP disc. There’s flamboyance at work – no doubt the saxophonist believes that people should be entertained by art.  That old obsessiveness, and a tendency to sound rote, have been deep-sixed. I’ve previously heard Branford’s playing as process-like, as if someone wound him up and let him go off examining chord changes, harmonic labyrinths, and what have you. Technique ain’t everything. If it were, there’d be more critical props for someone like Michael Brecker, whose technical acumen doesn’t always instill his sound with an equal sense of passion.

The program is both ardent and nonchalant. It allows for quips, idiosyncrasies, and twinklings that occasionally function as a vital non-sequiturs. The record’s most resonant signifier? It’s the saxophonist’s least earnest outing. There’s always been a good chunk of wise guy in Branford’s personality; you knew the end of his much buzzed-about television stint was coming when he winced rather than woofed at Jay Leno’s scripted yuks. Embracing the intrepid Branfordness of himself is something that gives The Dark Keys a natural feel (not unlike the way his brother Wynton’s first pianist has recently come to grips with the inspired looseness of his inner Marcusness). On the title tune Marsalis finds himself honking the four-note signature mantra of Trane’s “A Love Supreme.” It’s the kind of impromptu ghost dance an independent thinker doesn’t leave on his comeback record – hey, start that tape again. But Marsalis kept it. The message is obvious: if you can’t relax around the unconscious presence of your forebears, why bother blowing at all?

Perhaps the guileless vibe surfaced because the leader knew his band could kill. A week before The Dark Keys was cut in August, Marsalis and company hit the Vanguard for a week’s worth of improv that illustrated some of his certitude and much of his wit. There, he purposefully threw around references to other horn trios, roaring as often as he chortled. The band had the stamina and agility to make provocative music sound pliable, with a steady peppering of swing, whether they were waxing rambunctious or delicate.

Some improvisers gracefully jump the hurdles, others crash the gates; there are thrills in each method that makes the rigors of the trio set-up just as alluring as they are daunting. (Even the still-protean Sonny Rollins usually hems and haws when asked if another shot at a trio session is in his future). Branford won’t stay in this spot forever; in a moment or two he’ll shift back to the comparatively meager Buckshot LeFonque band that sates his jones for hip-hop/r&b grooves. (Lesson-providing corollary: remember how silly Oliver Lake’s Jump Up unit sounded when heard next to his jazz quartet?) And if he wants a bit more radio dap, there’s be a piano in his future, too. But for now, the emotional depth of The Dark Keys is enough to reward those who believe that audacious action can also allow a band revel in thorough musicality. Left-leaning ideologues who overlook it due to the leader’s last name will miss out on a shitload of invention and a fair amount of pleasure. I guess open-mindedness ain’t exactly their thing. But as of The Dark Keys, it’s definitely Branford’s. Here’s to thinking of his turf as a mind field, a place where self-indulgence can’t breathe, formulas are forsaken, and the exchange of ideas is enhanced by everyone taking their turn on the jungle gym.

One response to “Branford Marsalis, Not a Pianist In Sight

  1. Pingback: JD Allen’s Five Favorite Sax Trios | Lament For A Straight Line

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