Branford Marsalis Quartet - Metamorphosen (Marsalis Music, 2009)
Perhaps the title is laced with irony. Whilst it implies radical change, ‘Metamorphosen’ actually captures Branford Marsalis’ quartet at a time of impressive persistence and resilience. The group has maintained its current line-up for a decade – a long time for a single group in the constantly shifting jazz world. With Marsalis himself contributing just one composition (the outstanding ‘Jabberwocky’), it’s clear that this is very much an ensemble effort. It emphases that great dictum, always most truthful in the best jazz, that the individual and the collective need not (and should not) be mutually exclusive.
Those familiar with the group’s albums will rightly view ‘Metamorphosen’ as a logical progression rather than a bold new dawn. It presents us with a further exposition of the group’s core values, which are open-minded enough to incorporate playfulness, rhythmic vitality and deep longing, the latter particularly evident in pianist Joey Calderazzo’s emotional writing. ‘The Blossom of Parting’ pulls off the rare trick of being at once both free and refined. Similarly, when the group really swing, they do so both righteously and with taste on ‘Jabberwocky’.
The group’s reworking of Monk’s ‘Rhythm-A-Ning’, whilst predictably respectful of the jazz tradition, also comes with an audacity that one can’t help feeling its composer would have appreciated. It’s here that drummer Jeff ‘Tain’ Watts is at his most ferocious and monstrous, with hard-hitting backbeats to offset his more fluid statements elsewhere in the set.
The presence of Tain always reminds me of Julian Joseph’s mobile ringtone, although that’s probably a story for another occasion. There’s plenty of support here for Julian’s Tain evangelism of course. The masterful handling of switches between half time and double time feels, and the consummate understanding of subdivision makes for a swing feel that is accurate but also enervating and driving. The album is sequenced so that his two compositions act as bookends. This works well, with the opening ‘Return of the Jitney Man’ showcasing the group’s quirky, inventive side whilst ‘Samo’ offers a more dogged and concentrated exposition, beginning with intimate and reflective playing, eventually building to something uniquely intense.
So, whilst the various individual composers and their solo contributions offer a dazzling variety of styles and perspectives, the most engaging aspect of ‘Metamorphosen’ is how they fuse into a coherent and effortless whole. Often, the Marsalis’ attack is balanced by the lyricism of Joey Caldarazzo, with Jeff ‘Tain’ Watts providing conversational responses rather than interventions on the drums. Whether at its simplest or most technically audacious and exhausting, the playing always sounds meaningful and honest. With Joshua Redman’s ‘Compass’ also one of my personal highlights of the year so far, the American saxophonists seem to be in a league of their own in 2009.