Recording of September 1988: CBS's Serious-Suited Young Jazzmen Page 2

Robert Hurst puzzles me—I can't figure out if he's simply the most tastefully understated bassist I've ever heard, or just supremely adequate. Then I listen to Ron Carter, and it all falls into place. Hurst's playing is taut, concise, controlled to a fault. Though he's no Carter, Gomez, Haden, Peacock, or Mingus, he is a consummate accompanist of inspired conventionalism, drawing no attention to himself. I have to work especially hard to listen to him; not because his playing is uninteresting, but because it so seamlessly supports.

Jeff Watts is simply remarkable. I defy anyone to hear his work here—especially his solo on "Chambers of Tain"—without being reminded of their first exposure to Tony Williams. Watts's drumming is that multi-layered, that energetic, that sensitive, that witty, he listens that carefully.

Marsalis himself plays with an abandon I'd only ever hoped for before: long, long lines and snarling, dirty tones abound along with the full, round, warm sonorities we're used to from him. This is fully muscled, strong, healthy playing. Marsalis has always owed more to the hard blowers—Hubbard, Brown, Morgan, Navarro—than to introspectives like Miles, Wheeler, and Baker; and his rhythmic inventiveness, like aural break-dancing, seems endless—I know of no other horn player so meticulously creative in this regard.

In short, these guys cook. I won't go through the tunes; it's enough to know that each one bursts with the true, deeply felt music possible only when musicians of this caliber play with total commitment and telepathic ensemble.

The CD of this digital recording does sound quite a bit better than the LP, with particularly convincing highs on cymbals and drums. The LP sounds muffled and recessed (as CBS crams up to 32 minutes of high-volume music per side, it's not surprising). The soundstage is accurate, if unconvincing: everything in the right place, horizontally and front-to-back, but it never quite gels into a you-are-there feeling.

If you can own only one Wynton Marsalis jazz album, this is the one.

His brother, Branford Marsalis, again fulfills his growing reputation as one of the finest jazz soloists on any wind instrument, even more satisfying in this role than Wynton. Random Abstract is a tour de force, each tune performed in the style of a different sax master, from Ben Webster through Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, and Wayne Shorter to Jan Garbarek. Although brother/producer Delfeayo Marsalis's refreshingly engaging liner notes (those of Wynton's album, by Stanley Crouch, are pretentiously fatuous) somewhat spoil the fun by explaining all this, it still, unlike most conceptions of this kind, works remarkably well. It's refreshing to see someone so talented so publicly humble in paying respects to his mentors.

Shorter's "Yes and No," in the hard-edged quartet style of Ju Ju, the album on which it first appeared, contains Branford's fully realized reproduction of Shorter's woody, thick-reeded tenor sound and the fast, furious playing of that album. "Crescent City," a slow, dark blues, is Branford's tribute to both his hometown of New Orleans and Coltrane, with dense drumming, thick comping by all, and the leader's hot, sexy sax—the guy is a totally satisfying soloist, and the best of these three bands. Lugubrious Ben Webster returns from the grave on "I Thought About You," and Ornette Coleman's blues style is given a workout on the slow bebop "Broadway Fools." But it's on Coleman's own "Lonely Woman" that the real shocker appears: a totally convincing re-creation of Keith Jarrett's Belonging quartet, (Jan Garbarek, Palle Danielsson, John Christensen), complete with Garbarek's cold, clear, monolithic, frozen-butter tenor tone, Jarrett's chiming chords, and Christensen's cymbal washes.

A gimmick? You bet. Does it work? Absolutely. Marsalis's own voice emerges clearly on "Yesterday's" and Monk's "Crepuscule With Nellie"—more blues balladeering, with beautifully constructed sax solos. Monk's halting though deliberate melody on "Nellie" is given a reading of gorgeous dynamic range, an etude in the graceful bridging of awkward intervals and rhythmic shifts. Truly masterful. Digiphobes will have to bite the bullet on this one, however; these last two are available on CD only.

At this point it's no surprise that Branford's band follows him effortlessly through all of these face-offs and put-ons. Kenny Kirkland remains a miracle of a jazz pianist, whose reputation, solid as it is, has yet to catch up with his talents. Listen to him on "LonJellis" as he comps with wild, but always musical, abandon behind and beside Branford's Steve Grossman-style soprano. Drummer Lewis Nash, though not quite a Jeff Watts yet, has at it with fury and taste, while Delbert Felix's full-voiced bass lines have great verticality and freedom of range. A topnotch band, and the first with which Branford has cut an entire album.

The highs are brighter, fuller on the LP (which is cut at quite a low level to include almost an hour of music), but the CD has those extra cuts . . . There's a sense in all three of these recordings, by three different producers, of the instruments being suspended in space, not grounded on a floor or stage. They hang together well enough as bands, but not earthly ones.

A remarkable album. No lover of mainstream jazz should be without it.

Or Harrison/Blanchard's Black Pearl. Wayne Shorter's influence is even stronger here, as it was during the last few years of Miles's late-'60s quintet. Those bleak, lonely, elliptical melodies looping out into space are much more prevalent here (though, with the exception of Bernstein's "Somewhere," all tunes are originals) than on H/B's previous record, Crystal Stair, which ran much hotter, though to no greater effect.

Blanchard has nowhere near Marsalis's chops, but does possess Davis's timing and courage. Harrison, a more graceful and fluid soloist (if less elegant than Blanchard), primarily plays the C-Melody saxophone. It's a shame the horn is no longer manufactured; though notoriously hard to play in tune, its sound, falling squarely between alto and tenor, should definitely have a place in jazz. Harrison's unplaned tone is warm and cool by turns, whimsical and brave. The soloing of both is consistently intelligent, graceful, and tasteful without compromising itself.

Of the rhythm section of Chestnut, Veal, and Allen, only drummer Allen impresses to any degree—the rest, though supportive and more than adequate, were thin gruel after the Marsalis Bros. bands.

Harrison does for "Somewhere" what Miles did for "Someday My Prince Will Come"—the song is raised to the level of an intensely spiritual anthem, all with an utter minimum of notes. Again, elegant. "Dizzy Gillespie's Hands" is hard playing with a sprung rhythm that, purposefully, never swings. Though Blanchard can't hope to match Gillespie's technique, he implies it by the tension he builds so formidably here. "Toni" and "Selim Sivad" (that's right, spell it backward) are atmospheric Shorteresque ballads, and "Birth of the Abstract," while not exactly equalling or even conjuring Oliver Nelson's Blues & the Abstract Truth, still is entirely satisfying, chunkily dense playing in the classic Bluenote/Impulse style.

The CD is remarkably similar in all ways to the LP—I could hear no difference worth mentioning.

What's most important about Black Pearl is the fact that Harrison/Blanchard have opened yet another cool, spacious corridor of American jazz music to the light of today; it's a blessing that, 20 years on, the air is as fresh as ever. Highly recommended.—Richard Lehnert


Allen Fant's picture

Many Thanks! to Stereophile for re-visiting these records/recordings of the month.

Please keep posting this information, as I no longer have these older magazines.