Master Marsalis

Music - Richard Cook on a very smooth operator

Like his illustrious younger brother Wynton, the saxophonist Branford Marsalis is one of those artists who have had greatness thrust upon them. If Wynton is the pedagogue, Branford is the playboy. He has had a peculiar career, in and out of playing music. For a long spell, until Wynton won his position as artistic director at the Lincoln Center, it seemed as if it was Branford who was going to be the Marsalis to have the bigger impact on jazz and American music. Wynton's records and bands could be as airless as Branford's were freewheeling and exuberant. The elder Marsalis liked the cut of other styles of black music, and in his offshoot group, Buckshot LeFonque, he tinkered with some kind of fusion of hip hop and jazz. He ran the Tonight Show band for Jay Leno and played the occasional movie part. But nothing has ever quite fit Branford right. He quickly grew bored with the television work, and the day after quitting Leno's show he was on a plane back to New York. His golf swing probably takes up as much time as his saxophone. After many years with Columbia Records, he was appointed to a jazz A&R position in the company; but, with a cold wind blowing through that label's jazz fortunes of late, he has departed, even though his own albums continue to appear through the company.

His latest album is cheekily titled Contemporary Jazz - the sort of provocative snook that Branford likes to cock, only to shrug his shoulders a moment later and ask: "What's all the fuss?" It is, it turns out, a straightforward tenor sax and rhythm section date; in formal terms, nothing very different from what his seigneurial forebears Dexter Gordon and John Coltrane were doing more than 40 years earlier. If this is contemporary jazz, what's so modern about it? A cursory listen to any of the seven listed tracks (there is one of those tiresome "hidden" tracks at the end, a desultory blues) answers the question straight away: in tone, temperament and method of delivery, the record is absolutely of the moment. It has a certain shapelessness and plasticity of form that says much about how jazz improvising can still stretch every which way within an otherwise rigorous programme.

Most of these tracks rarely stray far from conventional harmonic settings, and the pianist Joey Calderazzo is a schooled post-bopper, definitely no revolutionary. When they frisk their way through Irving Berlin's "Cheek To Cheek", they are not deconstructing the song, but pushing it as far as it will go. In that regard, Marsalis is perhaps the most faithful descendant of the great ironist of jazz, Sonny Rollins, who loved to play tunes such as "There's No Business Like Show Business", but extracted from them a mordant and fiercely smelted lyricism.

Like Rollins, too, Marsalis often gives the impression that he is encumbered by his virtuosity. There is probably nothing he can't play on the horn, but so what? Where is the meaning in that? And he ends up rambling through a solo or an entire track, flashes of brilliance embedded in verbiage - it's as if music were too easy for him. The longest track, "Elysium", runs almost 16 minutes and seems to go nowhere at all. But, moment by moment, Marsalis can dazzle. He will light on a phrase and make it explode out of his flowing line, then resume the main course of his improvisation without a stagger. His tone is full, but uncoloured, a distillation of all the tenor voices that went before.

He runs a very good group, too: Calderazzo is more facility than creativity, but at the drums there is the formidable Jeff "Tain" Watts. The real advances in jazz at present are rhythmic ones, and Watts is an exemplar of how jazz drummers are revolutionising the music: every kind of countable time propels this band forward, and it all comes from Watts's crashing, swinging kit.

If it were not for Watts, in fact, Marsalis might slip entirely into the kind of ennui that has always threatened to dissipate him. Like all his records, Contemporary Jazz is fascinating and frustrating in about equal measure. He once famously remarked that he might give up music altogether at 40, an age he is now nudging; but remember that the young Mick Jagger once insisted that he would retire at 30. If Branford Marsalis does renege, he won't be the first.