If the Marsalis clan doesn't dominate the jazz airwaves this summer, it won't be for a lack of quality recordings. Trumpeter Wynton Marsalis is joined by his father, pianist Ellis Marsalis, on a new collection of standards, while Ellis's oldest son, saxophonist Branford Marsalis, has two new releases out, a studio recording of his quartet and the soundtrack to Spike Lee's upcoming film, "Mo' Better Blues."
"Standard Time, Volume 3 -- The Resolution of Romance" (Columbia), Wynton's 10th album, marks something of a family reunion for the trumpeter and his father, who last recorded in 1982 on "Father and Sons," an album they shared with Chico and Von Freeman. This time around the focus is tighter and the playing time generously expanded to 73 minutes (on the CD version). All told, 21 songs are covered, mostly standards by Rodgers and Hart, Vernon Duke, Hoagy Carmichael, E.Y. Harburg, Victor Young and other redoubtable tunesmiths, along with three original pieces by Wynton, who is to perform tomorrow night at Wolf Trap.
The emphasis on ballads and blues is in keeping with the album's subtitle, but it's also a logical extension of Wynton's last recording, "The Majesty of the Blues." Because tone rather than technique has become his primary interest of late, he colors the arrangements here with no less than a half-dozen mutes, shading some melodies with seductive moans and highlighting others with pungent exclamations.
The album opens, fittingly enough, with a trumpet salute to jazz great King Oliver, a happy-sad blues composed by Wynton and engagingly propelled by the slapping rhythms of bassist Reginald Veal and drummer Herlin Riley. Yet from the very outset it's the Marsalises, alone and together, who hold your attention. The graceful ease with which Ellis swings is evident once he picks up the tempo on "Street of Your Dreams," but his finest performances involve unusually warm and reflective readings of ballads. The introductions he fashions for them are frequently capped by just the kind of resolution the subtitle refers to, and whether accompanying Wynton with a gentle touch or waxing tender on an all-too-brief solo piano arrangement of "My Romance," his playing is as lyrical as it is economical.
In the liner notes, Wynton confesses that he hesitated to record with his father because he didn't think he had achieved "a good enough sound." It's a reasonable concern, especially when you consider that Ellis elegantly sets the tone for many of the selections here, but there's no evidence that Wynton still feels unequal to the task. If anything, his performances of "Where or When," "You're My Everything," "The Very Thought of You" and other favorites reveal a new soulfulness, poise and maturity.
The Branford Marsalis Quartet: 'Crazy People Music' The Branford Marsalis Quartet's "Crazy People Music" (Columbia), on the other hand, is far more rhythmically and harmonically aggressive. In many ways the album recalls the probing, often combustible nature of Branford's 1988 recording "Random Abstract," though much of the music is now driven even harder by the remarkably powerful drummer Jeff Watts.
Just as he did on "Random Abstract," Marsalis evokes, either directly or indirectly, the sound of Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, Wayne Shorter and Keith Jarrett, and at one point he even segues from the harmonically tricky Coltrane-ish anthem "Mr. Steepee" to the yearning, impressionistic Jarrett ballad "Rose Petals." But overall it's the freewheeling, up-tempo tunes that bring out the brawny best not only in Marsalis, but also in Watts, pianist Kenny Kirkland and bassist Bob Hurst.
Branford Marsalis: 'Mo' Better Blues' Due out next month, the Spike Lee film "Mo' Better Blues" revolves around the life, loves and music of a fictitious trumpeter named Bleak Gilliam, played by Denzel Washington. On the Columbia soundtrack, New Orleans's Terence Blanchard, who also coached Washington during the filming, plays all the trumpet parts, often in tandem with Branford Marsalis's tenor and soprano saxophones. The most compelling jazz performances are a pair of hard bop burners, "Say Hey" and "Out of the Box," and the poignant ballad "Again Never," but the album boasts Bill Lee's insinuating title track and some likable pop material as well, including an amusing indictment of Top 40 radio.
Ever since he embarked on his own recording career in 1984, Branford has been more willing than others in his family to embrace various forms of contemporary pop. Still, it's hard to imagine even Wynton finding much fault with the message the Brooklyn rap group Gangstarr conveys on "Jazz Thing." A vibrant mixture of rap, hip-hop, recording samples and turntable scratch, it's a video-geared homage to a long list of jazz innovators built around rhymes like "So let me talk about Diz and Bird/ givin' the word/ defining how a beat could be so complete/ playing with ferocity/ thinking with velocity."