Talking to Eric Revis three years ago after his performance with guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel on an outdoor stage overlooking the Grand Harbour of Valletta the Branford Marsalis Quartet bassist shrugged as he was asked how the band’s new recruit Justin Faulkner, still a teenager at the time, was settling in. Revis looked at me hard and said simply, as if it was the most blindingly obvious thing in the world: “He’s doing fine.”
At the time I was surprised there wasn’t more reaction to the departure of Jeff ‘Tain’ Watts, who had been with Branford for such a long time and whose place at the forefront of jazz drumming globally was pretty much unassailable for someone of his vintage. Tain was up there, and had been for some time, as Generation X’s version of Elvin Jones, or Tony Williams. There was nobody quite like him in post-bop circles and his own albums for Columbia particularly Citizen Tain and Bar Talk even raised him to the level of a Jack DeJohnette, a drummer who could not just play at a superlative level but one who could write interestingly into the bargain. Tain has been busy on a myriad of projects since, although it is true for the time being he is less high profile than he was, although granted Branford isn’t quite centre stage in the way he used to be.
The quartet without Tain but with Faulkner has recorded for the first time on the rebelliously titled Four MFs Playin’ Tunes just released on Branford’s own Marsalis Music label. It follows on from the slightly disappointing duo album Songs of Mirth and Melancholy, which Marsalis cut with the quartet’s pianist Joey Calderazzo and released just last year. Four MFs is a much more vital record, displaying a sinuous sense of abandon as the watchword from the off on opener ‘The Mighty Sword.’ Faulkner is athletic for certain, but I’m not sure it necessarily “marks an exciting new era”, as Branford’s website puts it. Faulkner isn’t that different, and to claim that his appearance on the scene equates with Miles’ hiring of the then 17-year-old Tony Williams, is to heap too many expectations on Faulkner’s still young shoulders. In many ways although this is to Faulkner’s credit he sounds like a much much older player, one with a sensible head on him and the maturity of an elder. But sheer maturity does not necessarily mean a major new voice has arrived and this record is about the band. By the third track ‘Maestra’ Faulkner shows he has the seriousness both Marsalis and Calderazzo demand, and the way the drummer moulds himself around Calderazzo’s yearning solo and Revis’ insistent pedal point shows he knows how to listen and assert himself while still working with the pianist as an accompanist essentially.
On ‘Teo’ it’s almost as if Marsalis is back to his Trio Jeepy days, I mean because of the jaunty irreverent opening theme, and it’s good to hear he’s got his sense of humour back as it seemed to have deserted him entirely on Songs of Mirth and Melancholy, which was more about melancholy… and still more dolefulness, even on the lighter bits. There’s an endearingly scampering quality to ‘Whiplash’, and that jam session sense of adventure it’s hard to fake, but which comes instinctively to both Marsalis and Calderazzo. ‘As Summer Into Autumn Slips’ makes me think of Branford’s wonderful album Requiem and I wonder what Branford thinks of Sleeper, the long-in-hibernation Keith Jarrett Belonging Band’s just released album given that on Requiem Marsalis paid tribute to Jarrett on the track ‘Lykief’. ‘My Ideal’ definitely is in the lineage of Jarrett’s quartet work from the 1970s, particularly the European quartet. Four MFs is a great return to form by Marsalis, his best album since Braggtown, although it does lack the fire power with Tain on A Love Supreme Live. It’s also worth mentioning the bookending of the album with nods to the atmosphere of New Orleans on ‘The Mighty Sword’ with its sweltering sense of momentum and then the bonus track at the end, ‘Treat It Gentle’, drawing Sidney Bechet firmly to mind. Stephen Graham
The Branford Marsalis Quartet pictured above