Branford Marsalis might be the most unassuming jazz celebrity of our age. On his splendid new album, Metamorphosen, he all but disappears into a band fabric that owes allegiance to the building blocks of bebop. But during its 10 years together — a feat unto itself, especially for a working jazz unit — the quartet has emphasized a voice all its own. And, to be sure, it is a group voice as strong as it is flexible.
Marsalis’ presence might be out front on the album, but he doesn’t dominate the music any more than his solos intrude with grandstanding bravado. On The Blossom of Parting, his soprano sax lead is almost like a ballet, turning gracefully around colors supplied by the tune’s composer, quartet pianist Joey Calderazzo. Later, on the album-closing Samo — one of three pieces contributed by drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts — Marsalis picks up the pace on soprano and dances about the tune’s group groove even as the musical pace and vigor pick up steam.
Marsalis takes a noticeable back seat here as a writer. His lone composition is Jabberwocky, a tune offering a typically alert and unrelenting sense of swing as well as a tasty sampler of round-robin solos by the band. But there are surprises. It’s not until Marsalis’ rich solo rises in temperament and tone at the halfway point that you realize he is playing alto sax for the first time on record in ages.
The nod to tradition comes in a suitably playful update of Thelonious Monk’s Rhythm-a-Ning and the jolly, broken stroll of bassist Eric Revis’ animated companion piece, Sphere. But you sense a more solemn view of jazz history in the taut, Mingus-like phrasing on Revis’ solo bass interlude And Then, He Was Gone as well as in the list of recently departed jazz giants to whom Marsalis dedicates the album. Among them: Max Roach, Alvin Batiste, Frank Morgan, Oscar Peterson, David “Fathead” Newman, Joe Zawinul and Andrew Hill.
Such inspirations might have helped shape Metamorphosen. But Marsalis’ group voice is so naturally developed on the album that his most open and direct influences are those that come from the quartet’s own ranks.
The roles reverse on a stunning new Watts album, Watts. Here, Marsalis seems to equally relish the role of support sax man for the drummer he has played alongside since the early bands of his celebrated younger sibling, Wynton Marsalis.
Curiously, Watts and Metamorphosen lead off with the same tune, a bouncing bit of rhythmic mischief titled The Return of the Jitney Man. On Metamorphosen, Marsalis plays off Calderazzo’s piano rolls. On Watts, he spars with trumpet ace Terence Blanchard on a version full of cunning and muscle that the drummer more than matches throughout the album.
Omnipresent bass star Christian McBride rounds out Watts’ all-star quartet and all but steals the show with two sly, soul-savvy introductions to the funky Dancin’ 4 Chicken.
A demented So What variation called The Devil’s Ring Tone and the Lou Donaldson-esque strut of Brekky with Drecky round out Marsalis’ working holiday on the rhythmically treacherous but immensely engaging avenues of Watts.