Branford Marsalis Quartet
Recorded December 1-3, 2001 at Bearsville Studios, Bearsville, NY
Branford Marsalis has never been one to stand still. The acclaimed saxophonist forges new paths with an assurance born of lifelong dedication and keenly honed knowledge, in the company of his stunning quartet. Together they have created Footsteps of Our Fathers, a joyous homage to jazz immortals living and dead who helped shape a value system that inspires not only Branford's playing and writing, but also his determination to ensure that true creativity will be properly documented through his new Marsalis Music label.
"I've always been an advocate of expanding modern concepts in jazz," Branford says of his new album, "but I've felt this was best done through the tradition. When my brother Wynton and I came to New York 20 years ago and unabashedly admitted that we were influenced by people like Miles Davis, I was shocked that we were criticized and called "neoclassicists". But I continued to do what I was doing, and waited to see if the muse would be kind enough to let me expand the tradition. This was the way I thought it should be done, from talking to people like Dizzy Gillespie and Herbie Hancock."
Branford's experiences as a teacher, most recently at San Francisco State, have only reconfirmed these feelings. "A lot of young musicians today are more impressed with instrumentalism than with musicianship," he notes. "They idolize amazing players, but don't pay attention to the music. Since my own playing has matured in the last few years, and since my band now has its own sound, it struck me as the perfect time to make Footsteps of our Fathers and stress the need for a more thorough knowledge of the tradition."
Few will doubt that Branford and his quartet, featuring pianist Joey Calderazzo, bassist Eric Revis, and drummer Jeff "Tain" Watts, are ready for such a challenge. Their previous recording, Contemporary Jazz, received the 2000 Grammy Award for Best Instrumental Jazz Album. Where that disc focused primarily on original compositions, Footsteps of Our Fathers revisits four masterpieces from the years 1955-1964, a particularly rich decade of recorded jazz.
The album opens with "Giggin'," a typically idiosyncratic blues line that alto saxophonist Ornette Coleman recorded in 1959 with trumpeter Don Cherry, bassist Percy Heath and drummer Shelly Manne. "Ornette Coleman is just one of the great geniuses of the music," Branford explains, "and 'Giggin'' is one of his earlier songs, so it still has a real bebop flair. I thought it would be great to play one of his pianoless quartet songs with a piano, and it took me a while to figure out how to do it. The best way is to have the piano take the place of the trumpet, although I ended up having Joey play Ornette's saxophone lines while I play the trumpet lines on soprano sax. Then Joey plays his solo with just the right hand."
Calderazzo lays out on "The Freedom Suite," the 1958 call for an end to racial discrimination that Sonny Rollins created with bassist Oscar Pettiford and drummer Max Roach. "Sonny is one of my all-time favorites, probably the greatest improviser I ever heard - and that includes Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker," Branford asserts. "You get the impression that he can play anything he's ever heard at any moment - his data base is unreal. Sonny helped me a lot with rhythm, those crazy ideas that he has bouncing around, yet he tends to be underappreciated by a lot of saxophone players who put all of their effort into emulating John Coltrane. I've been fortunate to dig both Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane, and to look upon them as equal influences. I've always loved 'The Freedom Suite' and loved playing trio, and there was a time when I would play one movement or another during our concerts, just to get it under my belt. Normally, we're not going to do that much trio music with the quartet, but Footsteps of Our Fathers was the perfect time to do it."
John Coltrane, the other tenor titan acknowledged here, created "A Love Supreme" in 1964 with his classic quartet of pianist McCoy Tyner, bassist Jimmy Garrison and drummer Elvin Jones. This four-part suite became Coltrane's most popular composition, and was recorded by a previous edition of Branford's quartet in 1991 for the AIDS Awareness anthology Stolen Moments: Red Hot + Cool. "I wasn't really ready to play 'A Love Supreme' then;" Branford admits; "but the only way to get at a piece like that is to keep playing it, because you're not going to get it right the first time. So I've worked on it, and my playing has come a long way since '91. The band is in a space where we can approximate the emotional impact that Trane's band had."
To complete the ambitious program, Branford chose "Concorde," which pianist John Lewis composed for the 1955 Modern Jazz Quartet recording on which drummer Connie Kay first joined original MJQ members Lewis, vibist Milt Jackson, and bassist Percy Heath. "The genius of what the Modern Jazz Quartet did is so subtle, not in-your-face like what John Coltrane did," Branford emphasizes, "and 'Concorde' is our way of saying thank you. John Lewis wrote songs that were technically demanding for each musician in the band, yet still required that everyone work in a group context. You have to really be in the moment to make his music work. We extended the performance compared to the original MJQ recording by finding the natural points of expansion. Where the MJQ didn't go into straight swing until Milt Jackson's final solo, for instance, I wanted more of a raucous, Duke Ellington thing. And Tain knows all about [Ellington drummer] Sonny Greer. The performance just builds and builds, then explodes."
From beginning to end, Footsteps of Our Fathers displays a focus and sustained interaction that has marked all of Branford's recent music. "We get better every time," he says of his quartet with pride. "It's unbelievable the way the band has grown. We're all serious about playing, not like when we were younger and more interested in having fun. That's why, when I was in my twenties, I could join Sting's band or The Tonight Show and not really play for a year or more. I can't see that happening again in my future, though. No more elegant diversions, because I don't want to spend that much time not playing."
This degree of dedication has been reinforced by the creation of Marsalis Music, an independent label distributed by another artist-based company, Rounder Records. The decision to launch such a label means even more from an artist who has enjoyed a number of high-profile gigs that jazz musicians rarely obtain. "I realized that what I really wanted to do was play during my years on The Tonight Show," Branford says. "Really creative musical guests would come on - people like Marcus Roberts, Bruce Hornsby, Sting, Marilyn Horne, Kathleen Battle, Wynton, and Placido Domingo - and remind me of what I wasn't doing. The irony of the situation really hit home. It wasn't that I regretted that gig, or playing with Sting. Both experiences were a lot of fun, but I saw that I couldn't devote that much time to something else at the expense of my own music. You can't develop your conception on Saturday and Sunday. Great musicians and great bands go on the road, they tour and discover their own thing."
In the case of Branford Marsalis, they also create a new record label to foster such independent spirits. "My brother Ellis, who works in computers and doesn't play music, told me once that he had what he called a 'philosophical conflict' at his job. He was bothered by the clash between people like himself, who want to provide a service to the community and make a profit, and those who just want to make a profit at the expense of the community. I never forgot that insight, and it describes perfectly what Marsalis Music will be about. We want to provide a service to the music community first. We want to create an atmosphere where people who make creative music can be heard."
All Music Guide
========= from the cover ==========
"It is perfectly natural to honor your elders and acknowledge the people who are responsible for your development, when the opportunity presents itself, the music is sustained by individuals who are not afraid of commitment or seriousness. once they have compiled and digested enough information from the masters they are able to articulate a new chapter, leaving more homework for the next generation."
- Elvin Jones
In a progressive society, each subsequent generation enjoys superior understanding and privilege. The ability to maintain pertinent traditions and beliefs - as established by cultural elders - while in the throes of evolution, ultimately defines those individuals whose impact is most potent. Perhaps no civilization addressed this concept with more resolve than did the native-americans, before their physical annihilation and cultural molestation, though thousands of distinct tribes existed across the nation, one virtue remained constant across the board: age and knowledge - not wealth - defined the ranking social order. Children were nurtured, seldom castigated; thus, their opinions of the village elders differed greatly from the views of citizens with european pedigree. While african descendants in america continued their peoples' traditions for many years, the living conditions of the time did not promote self or communal respect; the slaves' inability to protect or maintain a healthy family created undeserved irreverence between son and father, the ultimate bartering for young, well-bred bucks on the auction block-sometimes selling for three or four times the price of their grandfathers - engraved the fixed image of adult emasculation on the minds of all who bore witness or were privy to subsequent accounts of these events. To this day in popular culture, we are taught not to honor our elders with any level of sobriety.
In jazz, like all of america, the great cultural divide has received a fair amount of attention, european harmony, african rhythm and negro expression. Art is comprised of two essential elements, spirit and technique. The technique consists of several elements - melodic content, harmonic structure, rhythmic interpretation and overall dexterity. The spirit 15 literally the emotional impact with which a performer delivers the message.
The technique or language of jazz is universal. It has been articulated proficiently around the globe by every conceivable race and culture. The spirit of the music, however, which dates back to the early field hollers on the tax-free, unholy soil of southern plantations, is a response to the mental and/or physical anguish endured by people of color. Every major jazz artist in history has addressed the question of race at some point in his/her career, for the fundamental conflict in America centers around race-relations, it unwittingly defines all of our experiences in one form or another. "Footsteps..." celebrates not only the musical accomplishments "...of our fathers," but also the determination and strong will of men who were often given the simple choice of a mop or a horn. That spirit is the ultimate affirmation of life. That same spirit decries the hypocrisy that stains our illustrious Constitution, defiles our great Nation.
"Ornette Coleman is doing the only really new thing in jazz since the innovations in the mid-forties of Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, and Thelonious Monk."
- John Lewis (1958)
Ornette Coleman remains an enigma in American music. His sound and concept are based upon a totally original, free interpretive style of improvisation, with deference to the blues, jazz, african, Indian and European music. Most importantly, coleman trained himself to hear music in a unique fashion and transfer that aural experience to his instrument. When "something else" was released in 1958, it called into question the then-current notions of jazz structure and melodic content. Coleman's approach was so radical, many musicians and listeners merely scoffed at the outcome. What is most significant about that first studio recording is the addition of pianist walter norris. Playing in a style similar to the rest of the jazz world at the time, norris' solos were well conceived. But sound quite conservative juxtaposed to coleman and trumpeter Don Cherry's revolutionary musings. In 1959, Coleman's "The Shape of Jazz to Come" was arguably the most avant-garde jazz recording made to that date. If jazz music were considered outside of the boundaries of normality in american culture. Ornette Coleman's music was easily the extreme froth of eccentricity.
Recognizing the consistency of Coleman's music, academicians insisted that a system be devised to explain the ingenious sound... Thus. The genesis of "Harmolodics." While it's not clear whether or not this contrivance - rooted in european musical values - has brought greater appreciation to ornette coleman in institutions of higher learning. Certainly the analyses do not nearly measure up to the eminence of the actual recordings.
"MJQ was very conscious of elevating the music and attitudes about the music because we were playing in places where jazz had not been accepted before. First time we went to Royal Festival Hall in London they gave john lewis a beat-up old piano to play, explaining that the brand new concert grands were for 'Proper music' After our performance the stage manager says, 'oh. You could have played one of the other pianos.' we were constantly reminded of the old prejudices since we weren't into that Uncle Tommin' type of presentation. Growing up in America and not being Caucasian, you have to learn to live with a lot of things. We would arrive at a first-class hotel and be told we had no reservations, but the staff was kind enough to recommend a different hotel in another part of town. But what can you say about segregation in America except. There it is!'"
- Percy Heath (2002)
That these types of occurrences affected America's greatest artists seems incredulous today. The old record jackets and famous photos paint such a glamorous picture of jazz musicians - some brandishing finely lit cigarettes. Always dressed in immaculate fashion, cool sunglasses, berets, pork-pie hats, Stetsons, wing-tipped shoes, slicked back hair, mysterious personalities - the idea that rosa parks was sitting in the back of a bus in montgomery, alabama during the same year the mjq recorded "Concorde" seems irrelevant. But just as Parks sought a dignified solution to an inglorious situation, the Modern Jazz Quartet chose a similar route through American music. These four giants of modern music-John Lewis, Milt Jackson, Percy Heath, and Connie Kay - accepted the burden of challenging those institutions dedicated to the advancement of european classical music and its ideals, for four decades. It is virtually impossible to measure the full impact of mjq on music in the 20th-century, because their influence was so far reaching. Refined, sophisticated, intellectual, swinging... MJQ.
"America is deeply rooted in negro culture: its colloquialisms, its humour, its music. How ironic that the negro, who more Than any other people can claim america's culture as his own, is being persecuted and repressed, that the negro, who has exemplified the humanities in his very existence, is being rewarded with inhumanity."
-Sonny Rollins (1958)
A most fluent, brilliant and charismatic soloist, sonny rollins represents the epitome of gentility and respect towards all of mankind. It could be said that "newk" provided the inspiration for this recording, as he was known to pay serious homage to his musical forefathers throughout his career. On the miles davis recording "serpent's tooth," in 1955, he stood toe to toe with the genius of modern jazz, charlie parker. While bird's influence was clearly noticeable, it was obvious that rollins was himself destined to have a major impact on american music.
Rollins approaches music in a highly idiosyncratic fashion. Drummer elvin jones, who joined newk for the famous "live at the vanguard" and "east broadway rundown" recording sessions pointed out, "sonny is the most unpredictable soloist i've ever accompanied. Every note of what he plays is logical, but you never know exactly where it's coming from or where it's going. Those recordings with him were definitely among the most challenging of my career. I had to be prepared for any and everything."
"Freedom suite" was one of a few protest compositions in jazz. Though undoubtedly inspired by the civil rights movement, it recalls the locomotives and boxcars of the underground railroad at times and the souls of millions lost to the rigorous middle passage at others. Though the segregation that legislation supported in 1957 no longer exists, the struggle continues in more subtle ways. Rollins has always played a pivotal role in spreading love through his remarkable virtuosity.
"During the year 1957... I humbly asked to be given the means and privilege to make others happy through music. May he help and strengthen all men in every good endeavor."
-John Coltrane (1964)