There’s something wildly simple about Branford Marsalis’ first solo album, and it’s fetching. Instead of turning this San Francisco performance into a placard for virtuosity, the esteemed reed player spends the bulk of his presentation yielding to facility. Most everything here, from extended improvs concocted on the spot to rudimentary blues motifs essayed with eloquence, sounds like it’s coming from his horn unencumbered – thoughts made into sound, spilling forward as if they know their destination.
As a conversationalist, Branford is loquacious. Dude can spout all afternoon, and be quite captivating doing so. You get a parallel of that with his quartet work – squalls of ideas explode into a four-man fray. Here we see another side. With an array of saxophones at the ready and majestic venue that brings an aural bounce-back to each utterance (the cathedral’s natural echo is essential to the album’s sound), he’s more considerate, choosing to spotlight long tones and circumspect filigree. It’s a seductive approach, learned at the hand of his numerous classical music dates and plotted from the notion that melody – even curt cascades of song-like motifs – is central to the music experience.
The catholic interests we’ve grown accustomed to in Marsalis’ previous work mark this program. Perhaps the two bookends are Hoagy Carmichael’s “Stardust,” essayed in deeply lyrical mode that recalls Lester Young, and “MAI, Op.7,” a through-composed piece by Ryo Noda that brings aggressive textural gambits and extended pronouncements to the fore in an effort to conjure the spirit of the Japanese shakuhachi. They couldn’t be further apart esthetically, but find value by giving this show an ambitious breadth.
Perhaps most impressive are the four improvs Marsalis creates. Each is reflective, casual, and full of candor. Like some unholy middle ground between Sonny Rollins’ The Solo Album and John Klemmer’s Solo Saxophone II, Branford has dropped a soliloquy that speaks in tongues.
From the new DownBeat
A few years ago, in a DownBeat interview with Nels Cline and Marc Ribot, I asked the esteemed guitarists about their first inspirations. Their eyes lit up when the Ventures popped into the conversation – each marveled over absorbing the iconic instrumental band as teens. Both are baby boomers, as is their contemporary, Bill Frisell, whose Guitar In The Space Age! opens with “Pipeline” and closes with “Telstar,” two of the Ventures’ most famous tracks. Seems the music we all grew up with is always rolling around in our brains somewhere, often with a big dose of affection attached.
Guitar In The Space Age! milks that sensibility. Frisell, who was 12 in 1963 and did a good job recasting John Lennon’s music a couple years ago, rolls through ‘60s jewels on this one. Call it New Frontier music as played by a graying progressive as unencumbered by sentiment as he is unafraid of experimentation. From Duane Eddy to the Beach Boys to Link Wray, these gems are laced with shimmer and spark. Team Frisell includes bassist Tony Scherr, drummer Kenny Wolleson, and guitarist Greg Leisz. Together they circle ‘round the melodies while offering a bit of expansion in the groove department. No flipping the apple cart here – the boss’s longstanding genuflection to melody wins on each track, and rightly so. The essence of the originals needs to be sustained for this squad to work its magic.
Politeness dominates. Even performances that could turn aggro – “Rumble” and “Messing With the Kid,” say – stay calm. And ballads such as “Surfer Girl” and “Tired Of Waiting” glide on a sheen that finds Leisz and the leader melding their strings as if consonance was nirvana. The country tracks that bubble up swing with a bar band’s nonchalance. “Cannonball Rag” and “Bryant’s Bounce” are snuck into the program to remind the kind of brilliance that was lurking in twangville during that time. Song-wise, Frisell is always on a treasure hunt (see his update of Madonna’s “Live To Tell” from ’93) and these nuggets from the “duck and cover” era gather steam when corralled together. Heard as a suite, it’s a portrait of a long-ago time painted by a guy who always has an eye on the future, whether it includes a jet pack or not.