Both of these albums are very effective jazz projects coming from markedly different directions, and as such, they reflect the personalities and career trajectories of these two immensely talented siblings.
He and She is closer to a mass market or pop album than Metamorphosen by virtue of its spoken word content: a story about relationships between men and women that automatically relegates the music to a programmatic status. As a young artist, Wynton clearly admired Miles Davis’ ability to stand out as a great jazz musician while also working as a master conceptualist, a major player in the celebrity-oriented world of popular music. Wynton’s creative instincts are much more conservative than Miles’, though, a trait which has really worked to his advantage as he’s matured, leading him to take on major interdisciplinary works and rise to the head of what is arguably America’s most important cultural institution, Lincoln Center.
He and She is particularly effective because it is so thematically succinct; it’s a bit like a radio play where the spoken word pieces tie together the musical interludes. Normally, I’m wary of this kind of concept because it’s almost always accompanied by clichéd music that assumes an audience for this type of thing is musically dimwitted. But the music Marsalis has composed for He and She is wonderful, smartly arranged to cover a myriad of styles and played expertly by Wynton’s quintet.
Ironically, Branford found his pop success early in his career and could have easily eclipsed Wynton’s celebrity status through his work with Sting, his jam band cameos with the Grateful Dead and as musical director of the Tonight Show band. But as Branford matured, he turned more toward the core of his jazz audience, seeking the spiritual center of his music much as Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane did before him. Over the past decade, Branford has concentrated on developing his quartet into an original, tightly-knit unit. One of the group’s highlights was the recreation of the John Coltrane quartet’s iconic A Love Supreme, and Metamorphosen is just as impressive.
The album is balanced on the creative tension brought by each musician to the ensemble. All four members contribute compositions, ranging from the frenetic pulse of drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts’ “The Return of the Jitney Man,” to pianist Joey Calderozza’s staid, emotional ballads and the expressive solo bass performance of Eric Revis on “And Then, He Was Gone.”
The centerpiece of Metamorphosen is a beautiful Thelonious Monk tribute, a playful stop and go reimagining of “Rhythm-A-Ning” in which Marsalis references the street noise cacophony of Sonny Rollins’ intro to “East Broadway Rundown,” framed by a pair of Monkish pieces from Revis, “Abe Vigoda” and “Sphere.” Watts’ “Samo” is a lengthy piece that gives everybody in the group a spotlight, which is exactly what Branford wants for this excellent combo.