"I wanted to produce an album that was different from the music I'd already recorded with Art Blakey and Wynton Marsalis." SCENES IN THE CITY, the debut album by tenor and soprano saxophonist Branford Marsalis, offers an original perspective on the development of modern jazz, as he stakes out his own territory and approach.
Calmly outlining his musical objectives, Branford's casualness masks a controversial mind at work. "I'm not interested in trying to achieve a distinctive sound -- that will take care of itself. I think it's better for me to produce music and have people say 'wow, who's that?!' than for people to know instantly 'that's Branford Marsalis'. Besides, there are a lot of musicians with distinctive sounds who are not playing anything of substance."
The album's title track, "Scenes in the City," composed and recorded some twenty-odd years ago by Charles Mingus, is a kaleidoscope of styles. It is a nocturnal celebration of the vitality of the jazzman's lifestyle, recorded on-location in the streets of Manhattan. From the dingy rooming house to Le Figaro coffeehouse in Greenwich Village, Wendell Pierce's narration is aurally illustrated by the blues-bop-modern septet.
Three of the remaining five compositions are by Branford. The opening track, "No Backstage Pass," is a sax, bass, drum trio whose point of departure is the music of Sonny Rollins. On this track veteran bassist Ron Carter provides a clearly articulated although complex harmonic underpinning. Drummer Marvin 'Smitty' Smith, a much-in-demand New York-based musician and former Berklee School of Music roommate of Branford, provides polished and sensitive rhythmic support.
"Solstice" adds Mulgrew Miller on piano to the rhythm section, and features Branford on both saxophones. "Trane" is Branford's one-word comment-on the inspiration of this track which moves ahead in the direction initiated by Coltrane's "Equinox." "Waiting for Tain" is a steamrolling tribute to drummer Jeff 'Tain' Watts, a Coltranish song featuring the current rhythm section of the Wynton Marsalis Quintet: 16-year old Charnett Moffett on bass, pianist Kenny Kirkland, and 'Tain' on drums.
The LP's other two tracks are Miller's "No Sidestepping," and Kirkland's "Parable"; the latter is the only ballad on the LP, and provides a sensitive conclusion to a record which is a virtual textbook on contemporary jazz.
"In high school I played in funk bands and wanted to be a media superstar," says Branford Marsalis, cheerfully content with his career choice. "But the more I practiced and listened to records and tapes, the more I got into jazz. It's much more of a challenge to do what Bird did than to do what Chuck Berry did. When I realized how much of a contribution jazz music and jazz musicians have made to the world that's when I decided I really wanted to be a jazz musician. What I want to do now is play jazz and play it well in every context, swing, bop, contemporary, whatever."
This album's producer Thomas Mowrey, formerly a staff producer for Decca and Duetsche Gramophone, a Grammy winner who has worked with the Boston Pops and names such as Bernstein, Solti, and Ozawa. Mowrey's success with Wynton's album, Think Of One, was the prelude to his first jazz production, Branford's Scenes in the City; they would both credit another key figure in the production, engineer Tim Geelen, whose versatility and tenacity is shown on the live ambience of this new album's title piece.
The living jazz history is made every minute, and no exception was Branford's appearance last February, 1984, at the Grammy awards telecast, as the Wynton Marsalis Quintet celebrated its leader's equally historic jazz and classical Grammy victories. Now it's Branford's turn, as SCENES IN THE CITY adds another innovative chapter to the development of serious contemporary jazz.