The story of American jazz since the early 1980s is intertwined with the story of New Orleans teacher/composer/pianist Ellis Marsalis and his family. During that time I’ve heard Ellis Marsalis play at Snug Harbor on the far edge of the French Quarter every time I’ve visited New Orleans. Almost every time I’ve heard him, he’s invited one of his students to come up and perform a few number with him, taking his role of teacher outside the walls of the University of New Orleans and Xavier University and onto the stage of one of the leading jazz clubs in the nation. One of the few New Orleans mainstays who plays “modern jazz” rather than the traditional style of his home city, the elder Marsalis is a national treasure.
Ellis’ oldest son Branford is a sax player who perhaps doesn’t get the attention of his next oldest brother, Wynton (a trumpet player equally at home in jazz and classical, director of Jazz at Lincoln Center, winner of the first Pulitzer Prize for Music given to a jazz composition) and that’s a shame as Branford Marsalis is more quietly writing for himself a substantial entry in the permanent history of jazz.
Four MFs Playin’ Tunes is the latest release from the tight, adventurous Branford Marsalis Quartet and it is a winner in every way. The predominant mood of the CD is happiness, even in its more reflective moments. In terms of style, the CD is a mixture of approaches from some Latin influences, to extended group improvisations, to a series of blockbuster solo break-outs.
Marsalis shares the composing spotlight here with other members of the quartet, but to my mind the CD’s finest track is the cover of Thelonious Monk’s “Teo”—nearly perfect in every way. Like Monk’s compositions, regardless of composer, the songs on this disk often veer unexpectedly—and delightfully—into unexpected territory; to extend the cartographical metaphor, the songs seem to find new, more scenic routes to get from here to there, from start to finish, from one expression of happiness to another. Some songs and their performances are tight as can be, but then (on a track such as “Endymion,” for instance) the quarter seems to relax and just play for fun and we get to go along for the ride.
The other performers—Justin Faulkner on drums, Joey Calderazzo on piano, and Eric Revis on bass—contribute not only compositions but outstanding supporting play and solo work. Most especially outstanding in this regard is Calderazzo who is brilliant at every turn.
Marsalis’ own playing on the CD shows a range of skills—fluid melodic construction, integrated improvisation, quiet intensity, and an ability to keep the requisite blizzard of notes in some solos clean and crisp. His sound can be thin by design on occasion, but the rich and plummy lower registers seem his signature achievement here.
Four MFs Playin’ Tunes deserves the listening and attention it is receiving and then some. This will absolutely be one of the disks from 2012 jazz lovers will enjoy and discuss from now on.