We Study Everything: Branford Marsalis Quartet, Four MFs Playin’ Tunes

By Daniel Garrett

Branford Marsalis Quartet, Four MFs Playin’ Tunes
Marsalis Music, 2012

“Our methodology is ancient. We study everything. Great writers do the same thing. A writer writes, a writer also studies writing. Shakespeare read Plutarch. Your ability to communicate ideas grows the more you study and absorb other elements. You learn how to approach things in new and different ways. You have more elements in your repertoire.” —Branford Marsalis to Sam Stephenson, The Paris Review

Branford Marsalis’s album Crazy People Music was a longtime favorite of mine, but Marsalis, a student of European classical music, African-American composed and improvised music, and commercial popular music, has had such a long, varied career—playing with Art Blakey, Dizzy Gillespie, Sting, and Bruce Hornsby, appearing in films such as School Daze and Eve’s Bayou and on late night television, scoring plays such as Fences and The Mountaintop, as well as presenting music and talk on college campuses—that it is oddly easy to lose track of what he is doing: Branford Marsalis has been working with drummer Justin Faulkner, pianist Joey Calderazzo, and bassist Eric Revis as part of his quartet; and Marsalis has spoken of the older members in the band being reinvigorated by the passion of the younger Faulkner. Branford Marsalis Quartet’s music is charming, full of pleasing technique, light and playful, so much so that it can be difficult to distinguish between melody and rhythm. The pace is often quick, with bristling energy, and yet the music is quite pretty. The sound is intimate and the bass notes create something almost meditative; and with sound that light and piercing, it is easy to think that the root is freedom, or joy. For the online site of theParis Review (December 8, 2011), the highly appreciative writer Sam Stephenson described the Branford Marsalis Quartet’s recording the album Four MFs Playin’ Tunes in the Hayti Heritage Center, the Hayti center being a transformed late nineteenth-century church in Durham, North Carolina; and Stephenson saw Marsalis as a calm, trusting band leader—and the freedom allowed the gathered musicians is perceptible.

“The Mighty Sword” on Four MFs Playin’ Tunes is old-fashion, sprightly, pretty, with independent sounds that are perfect together: fast piano, propulsive drumming, and splashes of cymbal. The piano creates the sound of running, and the percussion of tumbling—and the horn seems to gesture, forcefully, frantically. “Brews” has a swinging melody, and its tone is lightly bluesy, almost whimsical. Is this the aura of an intimate, confiding conversation? The horn playing is fast, almost too fast, on the verge of losing tone. The rhythm—with piano, drum, and bass—carries momentum, attraction, a deep pull. “Maestra” is mellow, somewhat sad, with an aura of solitude, possibly of contemplation. The piano is given a lot of freedom, a lot of space; and thus transmits freedom. Its movements are both rambling and precise. Yet, one senses joy. (This five and a half minute piece is over too soon.) “Teo” is focused, intense, almost cramped, and full of short musical phrases. It could be a portrait of a man on the move, within a busy landscape. (It sounds busier than a conversation between a few people.)

“The unassuming title of this CD doesn’t do justice to the music contained therein. This is not a case of casual acquaintances getting together to have fun jamming on commonly known standards, but rather this is music played with purpose, direction, artistic integrity, and passion by four outstanding musicians who share some history together,” declared critic Scott Albin of Jazz Times magazine (July 31, 2012), saying the album might be the quartet’s best. (The title meant to be casual, humorous, is a vulgar indulgence; and hidden within it is actually a tragic history not many know—when black male slaves, torn from their families when young, might find themselves bedding down with their own mothers to produce stock for the master’s market or fields.) Reviewing Four MFs Playin’ Tunes, the British newspaper The Guardian’s John Fordham, August 2, 2012, perceived the jamming atmosphere of the recorded music, but affirmed that “Marsalis the balladeer is still eloquently present.” Steve Jones in USA Today, August 7, 2012, found the quartet’s song collection lives up to Branford Marsalis’s high standards, noting “there is always a certain joy in the music they make.”

The quick tempo of the Branford Marsalis Quartet’s “Whiplash” inevitably contains the tone of the modern, but what does that mean now—when a great deal of the contemporary is not so much about consciousness or invention or speed but disruption and noise and mindless sensation? There is a cacophony here—especially in the rumbling drumming—but the piece is beautiful despite whatever racing rhythm or clash of cymbals it contains. Is it dwarfed by the ugliness of the surrounding world? “As Summer into Autumn Slips” is slow, soft, but the listener does not immediately think of sentiment. Pleasantly ruminative. The melody that emerges near the end has beauty and soul. Is it too easily beautiful?

“Endymion” is delicate, fast, rhythmic, with a somewhat experimental quality—its shifts in pattern and jostled texture, and the sustained intensity of volume (the horn goes loud for a long time). In the swanky “My Ideal” the horn is solitary, before being joined by piano and percussion; and it is a declarative statement, with the horn as voice: a song with a slow dance inside of it, as if conversation was transformed into a ballad. “Treat It Gentle,” the album’s bonus track, has a strolling rhythm, an amused tone—evoking an earlier time, possibly the first part of the twentieth century, bluesy and cinematic.

Daniel Garrett, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, and the principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at Poets House, is a writer whose work has appeared in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Black Film Review, Changing Men, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, Wax Poetics, and World Literature Today. Daniel Garrett has written extensively about international film for Offscreen, and comprehensive commentary on music for The Compulsive Reader. He has an internet log, “The Art Notes of a Solitary Walker,” focused on visual art. He has written a novel, A Stranger on Earth.