Branford Marsalis is a year older than his trumpet-playing brother Wynton. Critics first took notice of Branford during his tenure with Art Blakey. Later, Branford toured with Sting, won Grammy awards, and upped the hip factor of network television as music director of the Tonight Show band. But after Wynton locked up the gig as art director of jazz at Lincoln Center and his fame escalated into the stratosphere, I began to think of Branford as the undervalued Marsalis. He being a strong-winded funk and jazz tenor sax stylist, I wondered if it was a trumpet thing. Everybody adored Louis Armstrong and remembers Miles Davis, but it was John Coltrane who reinvented jazz with his saxophones.
Pop jazz turned the sax into a sex toy. Not so with straight-ahead jazz saxists like Marsalis, who remains old school. More an intellectual exercise in instrumental rhetoric, his style has been likened to oratory. You hear big thinking in Marsalis’s performance, not the beseeching quest for pop stardom so often heard in the bedroom tones of the smooth-jazz sax dudes. Like the best of the traditionalists before him, Branford takes a solo from the depths to the roof and beyond, and always within the context of his group.
Branford has kept the same ensemble for a decade. His group’s latest, Metamorphosen, alternately brims with the dramatic lightning bursts of a Leonard Bernstein Broadway score and a deeper, colder current that envelops and pulls a listener down into Marsalis’s space, a place that I surmise is decorated in greens and blues. It’s okay to make Marsalis/Coltrane comparisons; Marsalis was nominated for a Grammy award for his tenor-sax work on “A Love Supreme” from the Coltrane-tribute DVD A Love Supreme (Live in Amsterdam). It’s as if it’s 1965 all over again. In interviews, Marsalis even invokes the Holy Grail of modern jazz when he says that he’s looking for the next new thing. The next new thing...it’s what Miles, Ornette — all those guys — lived for.
BRANFORD MARSALIS: Anthology, Tuesday, March 31, and Wednesday, April 1, 7:30 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. 619-595-0300. $29 and $35.