Saxophonist and composer Branford Marsalis has been one of the leading lights of mainstream jazz for the past 20 years. Mixing in the hard driving jazz of greats like John Coltrane and Johnny Griffin with a deep romantic streak, he joins forces with his longtime band members Joey Calderazzo on piano, Eric Revis on bass and Jeff "Tain" Watts on drums. On the upbeat tracks, especially where Marsalis plays tenor, the band is very successful. The opener, "Return of the Jitney Man" was also the opener on Watts latest album, and it is equally effective on this album to as straight ahead burning hard bop. His tenor saxophone is deep toned and agile and Watts drives him to make exciting music. Watts loves to make pulsing, vigorous music and his other contribution, "Samo" finding him locking in with Revis to propel the music relentlessly forward. The highlight of the album for me was a two part tribute to Thelonious Monk, beginning with an excellent performance of the great man's own "Rhythm-a-Ning" and then moving into the original tribute composition "Sphere." The musicians really identify with the the joyful angular swing of Monk's music and use it to their advantage with a couple of powerful performances. I have never been a fan of Branford's ballad playing, particularly with the soprano saxophone, and I think the two ballads composed by Coldarazzo, “The Blossom of Parting” and “The Last Goodbye" are the weakest tracks on the album. The music strikes me as overly romantic, limpid and ponderous; sort of like a heavy velvet curtain has been thrown over an agile and nimble group. This is a solid album, but I can't escape the feeling that it finds Marsalis in a holding pattern. Playing with his regular compatriots and with the usual repertoire, the band just seems to lack a spark at times, and seems to fall into familiarity. But the rush of excitement found on the tenor saxophone led burners and the delightful Monk tunes still make for some worthwhile and enjoyable music.
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