Hype Titles and Truth: Thoughts on Two New Jazz Releases

Do titles matter in jazz?

Just a few months after the whole kerfuffle about whether the music itself should be called “jazz” or “Black American Music,” along comes Branford Marsalis, the immensely gifted saxophonist, with an album called Four MFs Playin’ Tunes.

It’s bait, sure. But it’s also not entirely an empty boast: Marsalis’ groups are exceedingly tight and reliably rousing, with everyone locked into the same (usually animated) conversation. Still, listening to the first burst of saxophone on the opener, “The Mighty Sword,” one wonders if Marsalis arrived at the studio with his title set and big somethings to prove. He barely takes a breath. Playing soprano, he dispenses big fistfuls of notes, linking them into impressive roller-coastering lines that reflect lots of time in the practice room. It takes him awhile to stop babbling and listen to his sharp-reflexed group, and for me, that’s when the solo gets interesting. Having satisfied the dazzle imperative, he begins to link with pianist Joey Caldorazzo and drummer Justin Faulkner, exploring in more meaningful, less ego-driven ways.

Which chorus represents the best effort of the “MF” in the album title? There’s always been a degree of muscle-flexing in jazz improvisation, but these days it seems many of the music’s marquee names are caught up in that pursuit, and are sacrificing a crucial sense of lyricism (not to mention less pressurized exploration) along the way. When Thelonious Monk, the zen master of jazz songtitles, played his “Rhythm-A-Ning,” he concentrated on capturing all the weird right-angle quirks of the theme – not just reeling off a boilerplate bebop litany. He played into the tune and brought out sparkling, irregularly-shaped phrases that made it resonate in fresh ways.

That exact type of miracle does happen on Four MFs – particularly on “My Ideal,” where Marsalis, playing tenor, invokes Sonny Rollins’ broad tone and inquisitive ballad style yet sounds entirely himself. It’s a subtle moment – you just have to endure a bit of jazz business-as-usual to uncover it. Guess when an artist reaches the point where he’s identifying himself as a musical “MF,” he can do whatever he wants. Even (especially) if it’s Melody Free.

Another provocatively titled jazz release arrived the other week: Pat Metheny’s Unity Band, a quartet date featuring saxophonist Chris Potter, bassist Ben Williams and drummer Antonio Sanchez. Here, the concept of “unity” is fully engaged – it guides the group’s rangey, carefully coordinated melodies as well as the ad-lib sections. The tunes, by Metheny, are not typical jazz pieces; some have the questing air of the guitarist’s Group adventures, and others nod in the direction of Keith Jarrett’s influential European quartet of the 1970s.

Regardless of the style or the temperament, just about every solo begins in a mood of shared enterprise: After his initial lunge on “New Year,” Potter pulls back just long enough to suss out where his collaborators want to go. He’s lasered onto Sanchez’ ideas about the pulse, and though his solo displays crazy technical facility, it’s also full of romance and searching, unexpectedly poignant melodies. It’s the sound of someone who’s more interested into tossing out questions and sparking group conversations than simply playing what he knows. That aesthetic, a hallmark of Metheny’s musicmaking for decades, is shared by everyone involved here. It makes Unity Band one of those happy (and rare) instances of truth in advertising.

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