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Picks and Pans Review: Live at Blues Alley

updated 08/22/1988 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/22/1988 01:00AM

Wynton Marsalis Quartet

Though it may not appear so, the title of Branford's fine new album is flippantly autobiographical. If Wynton had wanted to title his equally strong, two-record set in kind, he could have called it Concrete Sequential. But that may not be something a concrete sequential would do. Branford and Wynton's father, Ellis Marsalis, a pianist and professor of music at Virginia Commonwealth University, explains: "The terms describe learning styles," he says. "A concrete sequential usually learns by starting with specifics and moving to general conclusions, proceeding from A to B to C. That's more Wynton's style. A random abstract does better dealing with the whole of a concept and arriving at the details later. He might go from A to E to B. That's more Branford's style. We live in a world that respects concrete sequentials. Random abstracts can be equally excellent, but they tend to follow a random course not prescribed by society and are often predicted to be failures." All random abstracts can take pride in Branford's progress. On his fifth LP, the 27-year-old saxophonist emulates a number of his heroes, viscerally evoking them but in a context and manner that is his own. The convoluted energy of his solo on Wayne Shorter's Yes and No might make Shorter himself whistle in wonder. In Branford's bluesy Crescent City, he revives the broad sheen of John Coltrane's ballad sound. Switching from tenor to soprano for another of his own compositions, Broadway Fools, Branford explores some of the harmonic and rhythmic implications of Thelonious Monk's legacy. On Johnny Mercer and Jimmy Van Heusen's I Thought About You, he perfectly mimics the tipsy-husky lushness of Ben Webster, yet he swings so easily and caresses the melody so affectionately it never sounds merely facile. Branford's transformation of Ornette Coleman's Lonely Woman into an ethereal reverie—though it may go on a bit long—is as bracing as it is novel. Kenny Kirkland on piano is stunning in a quartet (with Delbert Felix, bass, and Lewis Nash, drums) that reflects the formidable skills of jazz's young lions. Where Branford roves, trumpeter Wynton slices ahead with enough intellect and intensity for a whole honor society of concrete sequentials. He is not as warm a player as his brother, and his inventive phrasing and tonal shadings can sound self-conscious, but there is no doubting his virtuosity or the logic and sweep of his conception. This may be the record for those who have not been moved by him up to now. Wynton sounds looser live. On the fast numbers his unique, oblique ferocity demands—but rewards—a listener's total concentration. Playing contemplatively on Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans (and he does, having grown up there) and working through a mute on the relaxed Just Friends, Wynton turns in two of his most shapely and winsome solos. As with Branford's group, Wynton's quartet (with Bob Hurst on bass and Jeff Watts on drums) sets high standards of musicianship and cohesiveness, but pianist Marcus Robert's tendency to play patterns can grow tedious, (both, Columbia)

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