I think most people who've listened to Branford Marsalis consistently for the past 15 years would agree that on his current record, Contemporary Jazz (Columbia), his playing has reached its peak to date. Leaving his soprano sax at home and concentrating on the tenor, Marsalis has convinced me that he can do just about anything he wants on the instrument: he'll race through an exacting hard-bop marathon at a blistering tempo or pour out a bittersweet ballad in perfect pitch, and even his eruptions of glottal screeching no longer sound like he's tacking them on for hipness's sake. But Marsalis's skill has never been in question, not even in the early years of his career, when he conjoined the tenor traditions stemming from John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins to produce an oceanic style of his own; instead his challenge has been to channel all this power into something more than a flawless academic exercise. With the exception of his forays into blues and hip-hop, Marsalis has increasingly fallen prey to a weakness shared by lots of other highly educated players at the end of the 20th century: his music seems like more fun for him than for his audience. But on Contemporary Jazz he avoids this problem, investing all but his most schematized passages with an emotional immediacy that engages the ear as well as the brain. His younger brother Wynton may be more famous, even more widely accomplished--what with his directorship of Jazz at Lincoln Center and his many high-profile jazz education programs--but Branford is the more important improviser, with a busy, convoluted style that has matured impressively. He's accompanied here by the quartet from the new album, which includes longtime drummer Jeff Watts and pianist Joey Calderazzo, a recent addition who, like his bandleader, sifts the influence of several postbop giants to arrive at a dazzling summation of his instrument's recent history. Wednesday, November 1, 7 and 9:30 PM, Old Town School of Folk Music, 4544 N. Lincoln; 773-728-6000.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Jackson.