Of all the members of the Marsalis clan, one of the esteemed first families of New Orleans Marsalis jazz, it is saxophonist Branford who has proved to be the most adventurous in his artistic choices to date. Although he has largely focused on the development of his quartet, one of the best small groups in contemporary jazz, over the past two decades, it would be wrong to dismiss the other avenues he explored in the early stages of his development.
Marsalis’ 90s electric band Buckshot Lefonque was one of the more credible composites of jazz, hip-hop, soul and rock, and had the added attraction of the superb vocalist Frank McComb as well as the gifted trumpeter Russell Gunn. At that time Marsalis’ interest in popular culture was at its peak, as he also had an A&R role at Columbia, produced McComb’s solo debut for the label Love Stories and worked with stars of African music such as the Beninois diva Angelique Kidjo.
The biggest name on his list of credits was, however, that of Sting, to whose 1985 solo debut Dream Of The Turtles and follow up Bring On The Night he made a telling contribution, alongside the late pianist Kenny Kirkland. The latter, one of the best live albums of the decade, featured fine improvisations from Marsalis and Kirkland and showed the strength of their musical relationship in a pop setting that would also flourish within the context of the saxophonist’s own quartet. With Jeff ‘Tain’ Watts on drums and Robert Hurst [later Reginald Veal] on double bass the group became one of the notable acoustic small groups of the ‘90s, cutting studio albums such as Crazy People Music, The Dark Keys and Requiem, so named to mark the passing of Kirkland.
All of the above showed Marsalis’s substantial growth in many ways. His ability as a soloist had been endorsed by none other than the legends such as Miles Davis and Art Blakey, both of whom gave him gigs – Marsalis appeared on Davis’ Decoy and was a member of the Jazz Messengers – but there was greater invention in his tenor, blending fluency and fragmentation to good effect, and his tone on soprano had rapier accuracy.
Equally important was his composing. On albums such as Requiem Marsalis, professing an admiration for Keith Jarrett among others, produced some beautifully lyrical themes that had as much emotional depth as musical intelligence.
Marsalis’ commitment to the quartet format has not wavered and the current incarnation – Justin Faulkner (drums), Eric Revis (double bass), Joey Calderazzo (piano) – has proved itself to be a vital presence in contemporary jazz, for its ability to uphold the core principle of swing without becoming trapped by any of its more facile clichés. Furthermore, the ensemble is particularly effective on ballads and more introspective material.
As far removed as Marsalis may now seem from the early part of his career he has always been very vocal in his reverence for Sting – ‘He’s such a great musician’ – and showed the courage of his convictions by covering the singer’s enduring ‘Practical Arrangement’ on the 2016 album Upward Spiral, a cultured collaboration between Marsalis’ quartet and the vocalist Kurt Elling.