CD Review: "Four MFs Playin' Tunes" and "Flip the Script"

Two new CDs out by contemporary jazz leaders Branford Marsalis (below) and Orrin Evans (left) offer a pair of unique takes on what it means to swing in the 21st century. Both are assertive, interactive, and powerful statements, but it's what makes them different that I find particularly fascinating.

The defiantly-titled Four MFs Playin' Tunes is Marsalis's latest statement in his return to the fold of jazz-centered saxophone playing, after his famous break from his brother Wynton to flirt with popular music throughout the 1990s that culminated in his role as director of the Tonight Show Band. For the past few years, though, he has hewed closer to the path forged by his brother, proudly advocating for the jazz lineage with which he was raised, and mentoring a younger generation of musicians through his affiliation with North Carolina Central University. He has even developed a bit of a reputation as a curmudgeon, a far cry from his hip young virtuoso image from the 198os.

Four MFs Playin' Tunes reflects the same heated intensity of that anti-student rant, a quality that is present throughout the recording. Its sound is forceful, masculine, and full of notes. The four jazzmen understand each other well, projecting an exciting, joyful romp through jazz standards and original compositions. This, I think, is the essence of this record: four exceedingly talented improvisers -- "bad motor-scooters," as my professor James Newton likes to call them -- having some serious fun.

But as hard as these guys are playing, something about the groove leaves me wanting more. In his recent interview with Ethan Iverson, pianist Fred Hersch made a distinction between "burning" and "swinging" -- both valid stylistic approaches, but also distinct. (Before I continue, allow me to implore you to go read that interview!) To him, Chick Corea "burns" whereas Sam Jones "swings." Although dualisms like these can be broad brushes to paint with, I'd say that Branford's quartet burns exquisitely, but their efforts to swing are less effective. This is exemplified by Marsalis's rhythmically static (if harmonically impressive) eighth-note lines, with deviations from the straight time feeling like either formulas or mistakes, rather than adventures. Or take "Brews," a slow Monkish blues: the angular melody feels stilted, and Marsalis immediately rushes into a virtuosic array of licks rather than exploring the space that a well-played opening statement can supply:

Still, many of these tunes really simmer -- and the four MFs playing them clearly know how to cook.

Flip the Script is also passionate and thoughtful, pointing the way towards how jazz can sound fresh even with more than a century of tradition to draw upon. Unlike Four MFs Playin' Tunes, Evans in compelling in a variety of sonic contexts, whether the medium-tempo Monk-inspired opener "Question," the rapid-fire title track, or even his genuine solo piano rendition of "The Sound of Philadelphia" -- the theme from Soul Train -- in which Evans transforms the jaunty disco track into a heartfelt elegy to the show's recently-departed producer Don Cornelius:

Although Evans is also well-known for his uncompromising positions on controversial topics in the jazz community, his music speaks just fine for itself. This due in part to his great rapport with this group, a trio that includes bassist Ben Wolfe and drummer Donald Edwards. Their spontaneous web of polyrhythms is elastic and unpredictable, yet holds a strong foundation for Evans's right-hand melodies. And Justin Faulkner -- the Marsalis Quartet's impressive young prodigy -- could stand to learn a thing or two from Edward's sharp, driving cymbal sound. The record is also very well-produced, a clear result of his affiliation with Posi-tone's fearless leader Marc Free. The longest track, a spaciously re-harmonized rendition of "Someday My Prince Will Come," clocks in at just over six minutes, and the whole album feels purposeful, without any wandering moments of low energy. All together, it is one of the more cohesive articulations of creative sincerity that has come across my desk recently.

Both CDs are a reminder that straight-ahead, gimmick-free jazz at the highest level -- whether you like it burning, hard-swinging, or both -- is not a figment of American history. The artists behind both projects owe plenty to their musical forebearers, yet each has his own compelling take on how that deep well of musical knowledge can sound today.

Image icon Four MFs cover34.86 KB
Image icon Flip the Script cover48.01 KB
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