Monday, July 5, 2010

Branford Marsalis: Steep Tradition

Branford Marsalis (saxophone; b. 1960)

Branford Marsalis is the oldest brother of the very famous Marsalis musical family. He has built his impeccable catalog of recordings in pop, rock, classical, hip-hop, film and university teaching. He and his quartet also had a brief stint on television as Jay Leno's house band on The Tonight Show when Jay first took over from Johnny Carson. But at the end of the day Branford Marsalis is and will always be a jazz musician. Not just a jazz musician but one of the leading, most respected, innovative and versatile of his generation.

Branford came to prominence in Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers along with brother Wynton. He also performed and recorded with the likes of Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, Dizzy Gillespie and Sonny Rollins. His first debut as leader was Scenes In The City (Columbia Records, 1983). Scenes definitely shows Branford's growth as a musician. He would continue to carve out his own direction and identity through a series of phenomenal albums including Royal Garden Blues, Random Abstract, Trio Jeppy, The Beautiful Ones Are Not Yet Born and The Dark Keys.

Branford during this time would also perform with Sting and The Grateful Dead on the pop and rock side, and record soundtracks for Mo Better Blues and Sneakers. He also followed in his brother's footsteps by recording a number of classical releases, including another favorite of mine, Orpheus Chamber Orchestra entitled Creation. A full and diverse musical resume to say the least. In the late '90s Branford started his own label simply called Marsalis Music to develop various projects for himself and other artists (including Harry Connick Jr.).

One of my favourite albums of recent years is his most recent, Metamorphosen (Marsalis Music). Metamorphosen is a return to form of his earlier records--vibrant and rich in melody and invention. Tracks like "The Return Of The Jitney Man," "Jabberwocky," and "Samo" all have the tradmark Branford wit and composed brilliance that has set him apart from the rest of his generation of saxophone players.

With a catalog that includes over a dozen albums, you may be wondering were to start. The best place would be the very well crafted compilation The Steep Anthology (Columbia). The Steep Anthology covers a good selection of his best jazz albums from his years with Columbia. Highlighting some important and outstanding Branford staples; "Doctone," "Royal Garden Blues," "Spartacus," and "The Dark Keys"--it's a great overview of his playing style from cool and collected bop to more complicated melodic rhythms. Well worth the purchase and it will definitely put you in the right direction for finding which album to buy next.

One of the greatest jazz musicians of the last 25 years, Branford Marsalis will certainly will be mentioned in the same pantheon as legendary saxophonists, Coltrane, Hawkins, Rollins and Gordon in the next 25 years.

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