Billboard jazz writer Steve Graybow recently described Branford Marsalis' quartet as a unit with telepathic intuition and unbridled adventurousness, held together by a singular creative vision." For his first quartet album in nine years, Marsalis has made a requiem for a heavyweight. Requiem is a tribute to pianist Kenny Kirkland, Branford's friend and colleague for nearly twenty years, whose sublime performances on the new album proved to be his last recorded work.
"During the sessions, we were on an emotional high, but when you work with musicians as great as these guys, it's easy," remembers Branford, who was joined by Kirkland, bassist Eric Revis and drummer Jeff "Tain" Watts. Not satisfied with the first takes, the band went out on tour to perform the songs. They were looking forward to going back in the studio to re-record. "We had reached a stage where we knew the magic was happening," recalls Branford. "Kenny's death sucks, but as was once said, 'As long as you live, people will die.'"
Though indeed the plan was to re-record the tracks, the music is startlingly fresh and emotive. The Requiem sessions, recorded live at the Tarrytown Music Hall outside of New York City, are a fitting homage not only to Kenny, but to the sheer muscularity of one of the great jazz quartet combinations in recent history.
Produced by Delfeayo Marsalis, Requiem opens with the spirited "Doctone" (Kenny's nickname), which showcases the playful interaction Branford enjoyed with his colleagues in the quartet. "Trieste" begins with an evocative section in which Branford mimics the semi-tones of the shennai (a middle-eastern double-reed instrument) before settling into an high combustion, uptempo groove, while "A Thousand Autumns" is, from start to finish, an extravagantly melancholy ballad. "The song reflects the sadness people have in their lives," says Branford. "I've always been in love with sad music."
"Lykief" is a stunning theme-and-variations piece, made all the more remarkable by the flights of fancy the quartet improvises on the elegant yet simple melody. "The melody dictates time and tempo," he says. "It was Kenny's idea to take the piece way outside the chords, yet still keep the form." The album's only trio piece, the spectacularly poly-rhythmic "Elysium," was recorded after Kenny's death and reflects some of the group's anger and grief over the loss. "Cassandra" is the album's other ballad, a ravishing tune with no set time signature to keep it earthbound. The album's closer, the blues-inflected "16th Street Baptist Church," is powered by Eric Revis' smoky pasacaglia on the bass.
Beyond his work as a recording artist, Branford has also joined the faculty of Michigan State University in East Lansing, MI, where he teaches in the school's jazz studies department. He has also begun working as a Creative Consultant with Columbia Records' Jazz Department, signing new talent and providing creative input into the development of several artists on the label. In that capacity, the first album he produced for the label was David Sanchez's Obsesión, which received a Grammy nomination for Best Latin Jazz Performance. Other projects which he has produced include forthcoming albums by singer Frank McComb and pianist Joey Calderazzo.
In the months ahead, Branford will be back out on the road, playing his music across the country and throughout the world. Though he's had his share of pain, Branford has the right perspective. "In retrospect, my life has been relatively pain-free," he says. "The things that affected me have affected me deeply. But when I think about the good fortune I've had, the great family I have, I know I'm a very lucky man."