Braggtown, the new album by the Branford Marsalis Quartet, opens with a full-on blitz called “Jack Baker,” and even though Marsalis has his own distinctive sound, the remarkable performance evokes the classic John Coltrane Quartet as well as humanly possible. A couple of years ago the band — drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts, bassist Eric Revis, and pianist Joey Calderazzo, who’ve been a steady unit since 1997 — released an explosive reading of Trane’s A Love Supreme. The whole album. Come on, I thought, let’s move on to something else. The new record does exactly that. It’s the group’s finest moment, an astonishing example of a band working at the highest level as a single organism. There might not be a better working outfit in mainstream jazz.
In one of Ben Ratliff’s typically fascinating “Listening with . . .” articles for the New York Times, Marsalis retains the contrarian position he and his brother Wynton are famous for, but Branford isn’t interested in pedagogy. He laments that jazz players no longer appreciate the deep pleasures of melody and rhythms that makes listeners dance, even in if it’s just in their heads. He also says that today’s jazzers “are completely devoid of charisma. People never really liked the music in the first place. So now you have musicians who are proficient at playing instruments, and people sit there, and it’s just boring to them — because they’re trying to see something, or feel it.”
That touch of arrogance might be easy to sneer at, but Branford’s putting his money where his mouth is. After laying waste with the opener, the quartet cools its jets with a gorgeously tender ballad called “Hope,” written by Calderazzo with Marsalis on soprano. His pop dalliances with Sting and the Tonight Show Band are long gone, and so is any hint of the watery tone that such settings seem to require. His tone now is strong yet vulnerable, articulating a gorgeous improvised melody without sounding strident or treacly. They go on to assay a theme inspired by Wagner’s Fate leitmotif from the Ring Cycle, and the record even has a jazz adaptation of Purcell’s “O Solitude.” Through it all the band smokes, propelling the music forward with a constant array of accents, rhythmic displacements, and countermelodies. Watts in particular plays like a man possessed, combining fearsome power and subtle detail, but all of the members accomplish the same trick; never grandstanding, and always serving the overall sound. The album closes with a tune by Revis called “Black Elk Speaks,” and during his solo his vocal grunts and spontaneous shouts make it seem like he’s on the verge of exploding — a tension and energy that can be heard all over the record, from the most incendiary moments to the most gentle.
The Branford Marsalis Quartet performs tonight, Friday, October 13, at Symphony Center at 8 PM.