The Marciac Suite

COMPOSERS: Wynton
LABELS: Columbia
PERFORMER: Wynton Marsalis Septet
CATALOGUE NO: CK 69877

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Much critical comment in the late-Eighties and Nineties jazz world focused on the apparent ideological gulf between the brothers Marsalis. Saxophonist Branford (b1960) was generally cast as the more laid-back, hipper brother, playing cutting-edge post-bop but sufficiently relaxed about popular music to play with Sting or to embrace rap (wearing the obligatory backwards baseball cap) in his hip-hop-oriented band Buckshot LeFonque. Trumpeter Wynton (b1961), on the other hand, was seen as the stern jazz fundamentalist, emphasising the educational role of music, fiercely anti-rap, and constantly stressing the importance of ‘the tradition’.

At first sight, the brothers’ latest releases seem to conform to their respective stereotypes. Branford’s Contemporary Jazz is packed with hard-driving, punchy, turn-on-a-dime quartet music, vigorously interactive and razor-sharp, yet pleasingly informal – jazz for the packed late-night club. Wynton’s Marciac Suite is a carefully structured, poised and polished composition for septet – jazz for the concert stage, cultured, elegant and controlled. Even the tunes’ titles – Branford’s laconic and punning (‘In the Crease’, ‘Tain Mutiny’), Wynton’s straightforwardly descriptive (‘Marciac Moon’, ‘Marciac Fun’, ‘Sunflowers’) – seem to underline the fundamental temperamental differences between the brothers.

The series title of Wynton’s album, however – ‘Swinging into the 21st Century’ – with its assertion of the validity of a wider perspective, renders the minutiae of jazz genres and subgenres somewhat less important than the music’s overall feel and actual impact on listeners. For swing is most definitely the thing in both albums. Branford’s tricksy, restless themes, and his gutsy but witty take on Irving Berlin’s ‘Cheek to Cheek’, draw hard-swinging, occasionally volcanic performances from a quartet at the peak of its powers; Wynton’s cleverly appropriate pieces (‘Armagnac Dreams’ delightfully woozy, ‘The Big Top’ suitably circusy) elicit similarly committed and virtuosic playing from his top-class band.

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The fact that Branford’s chief influences are John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins rather than Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington is, in sum, ultimately of less importance than the overriding artistic aim shared by both brothers: to fashion lasting but immediately enjoyable and highly individual music from whatever elements of the jazz tradition most appeal to their respective temperaments. ‘Differences’ between such enviably articulate and high-profile brothers have no genuine basis in their work.