Next Sunday trumpeter Wynton Marsalis will celebrate his 26th birthday. It's a remarkable fact when you consider that this year alone the New Orleans native collected his seventh Grammy Award and set a record in the Down Beat magazine readers' poll with his fifth consecutive win for Jazz Musician of the Year.
Meanwhile his brother Branford, only a year older, has received considerable acclaim, first for his saxophone work in Wynton's quintet and later for his own albums. Since the group disbanded three years ago, however, the brothers have pursued separate interests: Wynton has recorded more classical music; Branford teamed up with Sting. But on their latest albums the Marsalises explore their common musical heritage by tapping into the wellspring of jazz, the American popular song.
Wynton Marsalis: 'Marsalis Standard Time Vol. 1'
With its collection of pop and jazz classics, "Marsalis Standard Time Vol. 1" (Columbia FC 40461) initially recalls an earlier album of Wynton's, "Hot House Flowers." But where "Flowers" occasionally seemed overly burdened by familiar and more often than not melancholy ballads, "Standard Time" is both lyrical and robustly expansive.
Granted, part of the reason for that can be attributed to the nature of the tunes. "Caravan" and "Cherokee" have always been rhythmically compelling, but Marsalis adds to their vibrancy through tonal shading, shifts in dynamics and surging improvisations that display remarkable harmonic and rhythmic assurance. Even the ballads "April in Paris," "Foggy Day" and "Goodbye," though poignant at times, have an unmistakable vitality about them, a warmth and expressiveness many listeners associate with a bygone era in jazz.
As for the band, pianist Marcus Roberts may not possess the dazzling fluency exhibited by his predecessor Kenny Kirkland, but his percussive touch and strong feeling for blues expression provides Marsalis' arrangements with a soulful ballast. Drummer Jeff Watts' snare work, which adds as much color as drive to the performances, is superb, and his nimble teamwork with bassist Bob Hurst creates a kind of rhythmic elasticity that brings out the best in Marsalis.
Branford Marsalis: 'Renaissance'
Like Wynton, Branford Marsalis has chosen to reprise some familiar numbers on "Renaissance" (Columbia FC 40711), beginning with an unbridled version of "Just One of Those Things." For sheer spirit, drive and spontaneity nothing on the album equals it, except maybe the last cut -- a live solo version of Sonny Rollins' infectious calypso "St. Thomas."
While there are several enjoyable performances in between -- notably a tender reading of J.J. Johnson's "Lament" and a couple of original and turbulent compositions relentlessly powered by drummer Tony Williams -- the tunes on the album seem more an offshoot of Marsalis' concerts than a fully realized studio recording. The one exception is a gorgeous arrangement of Jimmy Rowles' "The Peacocks," which deftly combines Marsalis' sinuous soprano sax and pianist Herbie Hancock's impressionistic colors.
The album was produced by yet another member of the Marsalis clan, Branford and Wynton's younger brother Delfeayo. The acoustic sound he captures is marvelous. Bob Hurst's bass reverberates with a natural, woody tone, and Branford's tenor has never sounded fuller, especially on "St. Thomas."
Blanchard and Harrison: 'Crystal Stair'
One of the happy consequences of the Marsalises' success is that major record labels are a bit more apt to sign other young musicians. For example, trumpeter Terence Blanchard and saxophonist Donald Harrison, who also hail from New Orleans, have just released "Crystal Stair" (Columbia FC 40830).
The album (also produced by Delfeayo Marsalis) marks the debut of the band's new rhythm section and heralds the arrival of Baltimore pianist Cyrus Chestnut. Since Blanchard and Harrison are veterans of Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers (as are the Marsalises), it's only natural for them to look for pianists who can swing with authority. Chestnut clearly fills the bill. He not only displays great power on tunes such as "Endicott" and the aptly titled "Slam," but in his quieter moments, say on "God Bless the Child," his playing is subtly inventive.
Still, tune for tune, "Crystal Stair" isn't as strong as the band's last album, "Nascence." For one thing, the original melodies aren't quite as appealing. But as composers Harrison and Blanchard clearly haven't lost their knack for emphasizing their individual (and sharply contrasting) strengths as soloists. If nothing else, the skittish "Neoclassicism," with its darting melodic and harmonic exchanges, demonstrates that. Moreover, the brash, breathless arrangement of "Softly, as in a Morning Sunrise" is as exciting as anything the duo has ever recorded.
'Harry Connick Jr.'
Finally, "Harry Connick Jr." (Columbia BFC 40702) is both a name to remember and an album to hear. It's the work of a 19-year-old New Orleans native who has a delightfully idiosyncratic piano style. His stride arrangement of "Love Is Here to Stay," for example, is at once charmingly old-fashioned and totally unpredictable, thanks to its unexpected dissonances and rhythmic suspensions. His own tunes often have a pensive, airy quality, and yet when Connick joins bassist Ron Carter on Thelonious Monk's "I Mean You," he swings with percussive force. Clearly, Monk and the late R&B pianist James Booker have left their stamp on Connick, but these performances aren't nearly as derivative as they are refreshing.