Branford Marsalis

What do the elders of the blues, such roof-raisers as B.B. King and John Lee Hooker, have to say to the erudite whiz kids of jazz, and vice versa? Though the blues are implicit in all jazz, what happens when the fundamentalism of the former meets the layers of invention of the latter? In this case, a fine time is had by all.

Marsalis and his confreres from The Tonight Show band—Kenny Kirkland on piano, Robert Hurst on bass and Jeff "Tain" Watts on drums—slide comfortably into the blues milieu, modernizing subtly. One of the pleasures of the album, though, is the four distinct blues-guitar styles it showcases. In the pleading "Mabel," Hooker unleashes one of his hard, tangled solos. Then there's King's slithery glisten on "B.B.'s Blues," Joe Louis Walker's whippy swagger on "The Road You Choose" (with an emphatic vocal by Linda Hopkins) and the reverberant intimacy of Russel Malone's acoustic guitar on Marsalis' lazy back-porch blues, "Rib Tip Johnson."

On "Rib Tip" and two other cuts, Marsalis plays soprano sax. He's at his best on the instrument: bright and round in tone, wonderfully fluid and supple in line. When he, on soprano, and younger brother Wynton, the trumpeter, hook up with Wes Anderson on alto sax and David Sagher on trombone for "Sidney in da Haus," Branford's tribute to the great soprano saxophonist Sidney Bechet, the album hits its zenith. Among the 10 tunes, four hard-blowing jazz cuts, sans blues guests, give Heard a lumpy structure, but their verve and execution lift you over the humps. (Columbia)

Hal Ketchum

Not long ago, Hal Ketchum was a carpenter and part-time songwriter who had migrated from upstate New York, where he grew up, to Austin, Tex., where contractors could offer regular work. Then in 1990 he moved to Nashville, landed a record contract, married the co-owner of a leading song-publishing company and released two albums. The second, Sure Love, is a hit, and this late bloomer (he's 39) is a star. Welcome to the new country-music boom.

But Ketchum is not a hat-wearing arena cowboy, a new-traditionalist crooner or a twitchy, tight-jeans twang-rocker. His sound is actually a pleasant throwback to Nashville's previous commercial high-water mark, the much maligned '70s, when such singers as Mac Davis and Kenny Rogers crossed over to pop. It's a simple, low-key affair where laid-back sentimentality rides in on relaxed Top 40 hooks, and an occasional mandolin, steel guitar or harmonica reminds you that you're looking south. Sometimes the line between easygoing and forgettable blurs, but Sure Love's best moments prove Ketchum is a vocal stylist who is here to stay. (Curb)

Belly

Tanya Donelly has been associated with a couple of college rock's more prestigious projects: the Throwing Muses and, briefly, the Breeders, an alternative supergroup led by the Pixies' Kim Deal. With Belly, Donelly at last gets a chance to hold the reins, and she succeeds admirably. The group's debut is complex, intelligent and strange. The sound is rooted in first-generation postpunk. The core is guitar, bass and drums, with texture and chord progressions taking precedence over solos. Donelly's singing is breathy and ethereal, like Sinead O'Connor in her less strident moments; her melodic sense is off-center, her phrasing full of surprises.

Some of the best songs on Star are moody, mysterious numbers. The band also turns out lively, catchy rockers with melodies that veer off somewhere unexpected and with lyrics (in "Feed the Tree") like "Take your hat off boy when you're talking to me/Be there when I feed the tree." Donelly's writing is veiled and elliptical throughout. In "Witch" she sings, "You're not safe in this house...In some witch's bed." But the more you hear these songs, the more clues they yield. (Sire/Reprise)

>Branford Marsalis

BANTER MORE WITH JAY? NO THANKS

DURING THE WEEKS NBC LET JAY LENO twist in the wind, Tonight show staffers would often drop by the bandstand to cool out. "There was always less stress in our area," says Branford Marsalis, 32, the show's musical director. One reason is that jazz musicians are used to finding work on a moment's notice and juggling different kinds of jobs, few steady. "People would say, 'How can you remain so calm?' But that's something you learn from jazz—just go with the flow."

Marsalis—who has strong opinions on race, politics, sports and most other matters—also knows when to resist the flow. "People keep saying you should banter more with Jay," he says. "Jay doesn't need a sidekick, and if he did, I'd be the wrong guy. Musically I can reflect who I really am on this show, so I'm happy. But the more opportunities I have to spout off at the mouth, the more people will realize I'm a very unconservative fellow. So I think I'm fine the way I am."

Among his unconservative opinions is that Tonight's new opening theme, which he composed last year, "should change. I'll have a new one every year if they let me." He adds, "I've always thrived on change. I went to three different elementary schools, three different high schools. Discovering new things is what I liked about being on the road. The drag is that none of the cities are new to me anymore. I'd like to see some cities on Mars." One thing that never changes is his bond, musical and personal, with his brother, Wynton, 31, who helps ignite Heard You Twice's most joyful cut. Says Branford: "We play like we've got one brain."

  • Contributors:
  • Eric Levin,
  • Hal Espen,
  • Michael Rubiner.