The dramatic emergence of trumpeter Wynton Marsalis and his older brother, saxophonist Branford, still stands as the single biggest happening of the 1980s jazz scene.
As members of the galvanizing hard bop "school" presided over by master drummer Art Blakey, the youthful "jazz messengers" attracted die-hard jazz fans as well as the fickle East Coast jazz press. Here, indeed, were two youngsters everyone could feel good about.
They displayed audacious techniques and a more than passing acquaintance with the jazz medium's great traditions. As for their well-honed sonic signatures, well, these were based on the classic Miles Davis in the case of Wynton, and a blend of Sonny Rollins and the more lyrical side of John Coltrane for Branford.
EACH, THEN, offered approaches that were not only familiar to jazz fans, but beloved and, indeed, venerated and regarded as "hip." In addition, the brothers were two spanking fresh "packages" graced with the downy freshness of youth and yet also leavened with a twist of their native New Orleans. And, they were articulate, and often brash, and therefore good copy for journalists.
And like Benny Goodman, each had a classical background that took them well past the boundaries of the jazz world. And when Wynton won a pair of Grammys, one for jazz, the other for classical, the Marsalis bandwagon was rolling. Each, in short time, became a media darling whose image, words and sounds were sought out and exploited around the world.
TO THEIR credit, each brother has proved durable. And having survived the intense media gaze of the 1980s, they have now become virtual establishment figures. Wynton, the jazz purist, heads up the jazz programs at New York's Lincoln and Washington's Kennedy centers. And Branford, who has ventured into the netherworld of pop with the likes of Sting, is about to make his debut as a TV network regular at the helm of the "Tonight Show" band, as the mantle of late-night gab passes from Johnny Carson to Jay Leno.
Today, the music currently being marketed under the "Marsalis" logo continues to excite, intrigue and satisfy.
LEVEE LOW MOAN, Wynton Marsalis (Columbia CK 47975): This provocative sextet session reveals echoes of the classic sextet dates of Miles Davis from the late 1950s, as well as Wynton's continuing love affair with the heritage of the Mississippi Delta.
There's a luminous pungency to the blend of the leader's muted trumpet with Wessell Anderson's alto and Todd Williams' tenor, a meld that in "Superb Starling" sparks haunting overtones limned with bluesy modalities in the manner of Miles' "All Blues."
The date's relaxed, even meandering open-endedness is further spatialized by spartan undercurrents set in motion by pianist Marcus Roberts, bassist Reginald Veal and drummer Herlin Riley. And being the third volume of Wynton's "Soul Gestures in Southern Blue," the music is redolent of earthy aromas and sweetly acrid floral scents.
THE BEAUTYFUL ONES ARE NOT YET BORN, Branford Marsalis (Columbia CK 46990): In truly bold trio performances with bassist Robert Hurst and drummer Jeff "Tain" Watts, Branford proves a worthy extension of the tradition established by tenor titan Sonny Rollins, where genuinely spontaneous improvisations are combined with wit and an innate sense of form which dance and bop with seemingly casual yet absolutely intense abandon.
In "Roused About," Branford's serpentine soprano uncoils with a kind of playful circumspection that draws out a kaleidoscopic gallery of varied yet related portraits. In the title track, an extended, free-flowing arabesque in the tradition of Coltrane, Branford's soprano spins out shimmering sheets of impassioned sound.
For the tongue-and-cheek track titled "Cain & Abel," Branford's tenor spins in counterpointed tandem with brother Wynton's trumpet. Based on their childhood experience of singing Bach chorales, the brothers' deft contrapuntal competition produces a tie, and a bundle of highly inspired music. In all, a tour de force for the magnetic Branford, who just may become one of jazzdom's true innovators.
HEART OF GOLD, Ellis Marsalis (Columbia CK 47509): For fans of mainstream jazz, this is a pure delight. With a lightness of touch reminiscent of Teddy Wilson and an ever swinging and bubbly countenance, the head of the Marsalis clan proves that the "old man" still has a lot to say to his kids, and to us.
Backed by a couple of comparable old pros, bassist Ray Brown and drummer Billy Higgins, Ellis's wit and deceptively off-hand approach qualify him for the honorific, "The Noel Coward of Jazz." Here, his blithe spirit elevates a repertory of standards that includes "Never Let Me Go," "Love for Sale" and "Have You Met Miss Jones?"
There are a couple of effective cameos including an appearance on "This Can't Be Love" by 14-year-old drummer Jason Marsalis, the youngest of the pianist's six sons, another indication that the Marsalis dynasty should be able to help sustain the tradition of improvisational integrity well on into the next century.