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The Ciompi Quartet with guest Branford Marsalis

Tonight, in the same hall Zorn played last night, it was the Ciompi Quartet with Branford Marsalis. I was looking forward to hearing my friend marc faris’s new composition Mountain Music which, as it turned out, is a beautifully restrained piece, distinctive, personal, and surprising. And yet, through no fault of the music or musicians, I was discontent. I didn’t hear the sounds I wanted to hear. I hope I get another chance when I’m in a better frame of mind to listen (it didn’t help things that the two pieces on that half of the program were listed on the program in the wrong order).

Maybe this reflects my own faulty and biased memory as much as anything, but it struck me at the end of the concert that the grittiest sforzando playing of the evening happened in the Mendelssohn. True or not, the fact that I formed this impression pretty well sums up my frame of mind—I was all set to hear quartet and soloist dig in, as I have heard both do, with great ferocity, on other occasions.

Much as I’d like to broaden my horizons, when I hear the saxophone played “legit” it usually sounds to me like all the juice has been drained out of the poor thing. That’s not exactly my reaction to Branford’s playing, even on the more or less lightweight stuff (Milhaud, etc.) he recorded on Creation, but I was all geared up to hear some of the energy and intensity of his jazz playing. I recently wrote a piece that combines a chamber ensemble and Contrane-esque soprano sax, so it goes without saying that it’s a sound I’m very keen to hear.

There was also some lingering energy of Masada, playing on the same stage last night, not to mention the last time I heard Branford, a year or so ago in the same hall, sitting in with Roy Haynes. Haynes’s show was fabulous. It’s tempting to say that he’s phenomenal for an 80 year old, but that’s wrong—he’s just plain phenomenal. Like so many old jazz masters he tours with a group of younger players who don’t have nearly the experience or stature. I don’t mean that as a complaint—it’s like jazz finishing school, a great thing both to see and to hear. Nonetheless, the highlight of the evening was when Branford swaggered out to sit in. Maybe he would have carried himself the same way even if Haynes hadn’t had a tenor player—maybe the swagger was all about the music—but jazz has always been a blood sport, so it’s hard to imagine it wasn’t “I’ll show this cat a thing or two.” Whatever the motivation, it sure got Haynes’ attention. Something jelled, and for a while we were in the realm of Coltrane and Elvin Jones, a state of mutual combustion, each player completely immersed in what the other is doing. I felt a little sorry for the other tenor player—a fine musician in his own right, of course, or he wouldn’t have been in the band—but I’d like to think that even he was glad to be around to hear that kind of music making.

I’ve heard Branford give public talks a few times over the years. With him it’s all about tellin’ it like it is—no bullshit (the full interview that Ken Burns so obnoxiously excerpted is great—provocative of course but also very smart and generous). On the most recent occasion I heard him speak, the big theme seemed to be that technical challenges and virtuosity are defining aspects of jazz. I also remember him making a big point of what a useless and annoying instrument the trombone is—a gratuitous swipe that goes back to the same theme, really, since trombone players like me tend to make an embarrassing spectacle of themselves trying to clear the hurdles (the ones who don’t are just exceptions that prove the rule, I guess). Branford is a bebopper at heart, and an exceptionally articulate spokesman for that point of view, since he has the experience and broad-mindedness to see it clearly from both the inside and the outside. The bebop mindset tends to see the road to mastery in terms of increasingly intricate musical/improvisational challenges (like Bird’s famous trick of playing Cherokee at a ridiculous tempo in all 12 keys). If you get far enough along you can earn the right to play free, because, as one of my teachers used to tell me, “if you can play everything you can play anything.” That is, if you learn to play all the scales and patterns that you can relate somehow to the chords you’ll eventually transcend them—you’ll be able to make any note work anywhere. On the principle that jazz is what jazz musicians play, I think it’s attitudes like this that meaningfully define the music, more so than any list of musical features (swing, walking bass, blue notes, etc.).

I’m thinking about all this because of the distinction I was trying to draw last night between John Zorn and Dave Douglas. With Branford in mind, I think maybe it comes down to this: Zorn doesn’t sound like he thinks like a jazz musician and Douglas does. What I heard in Zorn’s soloing was all about sound and texture and gesture—the actual pitches were largely irrelevant. The reason Masada is so original may be just that—Zorn doesn’t come at the music with a jazz mindset (which isn’t to say that he doesn’t understand jazz or can’t play it, since he obviously does and can). Even Ornette, no matter how free, still sounds like he thinks like a jazz musician (hopefully it’s obvious, but I’ll still say it: I’m not making value judgments here).

There are some interesting parallels between Branford and Zorn, though. They both work in a broadly similar way to avoid being typecast. Come at Zorn from a mainstream perspective and he answers with the good old avant-guardist attitude of épater le bourgeois, but come at him with the elitist, insular expectations of high modernism and you get cartoon music. Branford’s answer to the mainstream is to emphasize the depth and difficulty of jazz (in both artistic and technical terms) but, like Zorn, he actively resists the purist impulse that comes from inside the tradition. Both men can be alternately refreshing, inspiring, and irritating (for me it’s Zorn who is particularly irritating, since the dynamic in his case is both more hermetic and seems more a matter of self-promotion). It’s almost like a separated-at-birth scenario—strongly creative and individualistic personalities that have been shaped by two different (but equally iconic) American milieu—Black New Orleans and Jewish New York.