Whilst we often spend a lot of time talking about the most famous saxophonists from the 20th Century, as well as the rising stars of modern jazz, there’s a select group of musicians who straddle the two.

Enter Branford Marsalis, tenor and soprano saxophonist who has been a big name in the world of jazz for the last 40 years… and counting! 

Saxophonist Branford Marsalis (born Louisiana USA 1960) is the eldest brother of a family whose name first came to international prominence in the 1980s.

Whilst perhaps not as ‘famous’ as his younger sibling, trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, in the wider world, Branford has had acclaim and recognition as a saxophonist, composer and bandleader of note for almost four decades.

From his very earliest recordings as sideman with the likes of established jazz masters, Art Blakey and Herbie Hancock, through to collaborative projects with his brother, Wynton and onto the formation of his own group, the discography of Branford Marsalis contains some of the most significant American jazz music of the last 40 years.

Branford’s early years as an aspiring musician were fostered by growing up in a family tailor-made for such development.

His father, Ellis Marsalis, was a professional jazz pianist and educator based in New Orleans, USA. Branford studied under his father at the New Orleans Centre for Creative Arts before continuing his studies at Southern University in Baton Rouge, Louisiana and at Berklee College of Music in Boston.

The breadth of Branford’s training has enabled him as a professional musician to step expertly into a variety of genres and settings, be it improvised jazz, classical works (Branford has performed as soloist with orchestra) or popular music styles (stints with Sting, James Taylor and The Grateful Dead amongst others).

In fact, this very chameleon-like ability Branford possesses can often leave the listener guessing what’s going to come next! 

Within his jazz work, the influence of past masters such as John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins and Ben Webster are often evident. However, when his own identity does come more to the fore (characterised as an exuberant, passionate and lyrical voice), he is capable of some particularly arresting performances.

In general terms, Branford’s tenor saxophone solos tend towards virtuosic, machine-gun-like torrent of notes in the sheets of sound approach originally identified with John Coltrane and his followers.

However, Branford’s soprano saxophone playing tends to bring out more of the lyrical playful side of his musical nature.

Black Codes From The Underground

Recorded in 1985 under the leadership of Wynton Marsalis, this album is a bona fide classic of the modern jazz period.

In its own way, it redefined a style of jazz music that had somewhat fallen out of favour amongst many musicians in the 1970s to early 1980s. Namely, acoustic swinging jazz music.

Using the Miles Davis Quintet of the mid 1960s as its template, this Marsalis brothers` recording had a huge impact on musicians both in the USA and beyond. It also wasn’t without its detractors.

Groups such as Wayne Shorter’s/Joe Zawinul’s Weather Report, Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters and Miles Davis’ own ensembles had defined a style that had come to be known as Jazz Fusion, a music that embraced electric instruments and approaches, which were more associated with the popular music of the day.

For some, the Marsalis outlook (even down to the wearing of suits on the bandstand) was seen as conservative and reactionary. Fortunately, this recording can now be listened to without these arguments, for and against, getting in the way.

It is simply stated as a brilliantly realised series of acoustic performances by a group of 20-something American jazz musicians. Everyone excels in these modally inclined compositions.

Listen to the opening track Black Codes with delightful contributions from all involved and an example of the dancing lyrical soprano saxophone work of Branford.

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Royal Garden Blues

This 1986 recording marks a turning point for Branford coming as it did out of a period of wide ranging assignments as a sideman, and as he (subsequent to this recording) looked to form his first working band.

Released on the major CBS/Columbia label was also significant, as it guaranteed a marketing profile a smaller company might not have been able to afford.

The result was international exposure and recognition for the young Marsalis. With this came touring opportunities for the soon emerging Branford Marsalis Quartet.

This present release features Marsalis as sole horn with a variety of different rhythm sections.

The standout number here is Dienda, the exquisite Kenny Kirkland ballad waltz featuring the composer at the piano with a wonderfully spare soprano melody statement and solo by Branford.

It was this particular combination of forces that was to bear much fruit in the years to come..

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Renaissance

Renaissance was yet another 1986 CBS recording, and the final Marsalis release prior to the series of recordings that marked the first incarnation of the Branford Marsalis Quartet.

This session features once again Kenny Kirkland on piano, alongside a guest appearance by the legendary drummer, Tony Williams. Essentially, this session is a series of takes on jazz standards both old and new.

Alongside the quartet performances is one trio outing featuring the piano/bass team of Herbie Hancock and Buster Williams and one solo turn by Marsalis on the jazz standard “St Thomas”.

It is on this track and the quartet performance of another jazz standard “Lament” that one can detect in the saxophonist a tendency towards mimicry, albeit reverential.

In this instance, Ben Webster and Sonny Rollins are clearly being referenced right down to the characteristic breathiness of the former.

This is an aspect of Marsalis that is clearly apparent in his performances from time to time.

Much more significant here are brilliant treatments of two Tony Williams penned compositions “Love Stone” and “Citadel”, and the trio outing on Jimmy Rowles` “The Peacocks”.

Listen here to some magnificent agitated tenor playing on “Love Stone”, a composition that mixes 3/4 and 4/4 passages.

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Random Abstract

This1987 CBS recording features Branford alongside his working group of that year.

This particular session was recorded in Japan, whilst the band was on tour. It all adds up to a group of musicians completely in synch with one another.

The all-star rhythm section of Kirkland, Delbert Felix and Lewis Nash stimulate Marsalis to some of his finest playing of the period. What contributes to the strength of the album is the marvellous wealth of differing approaches.

From the Coltrane-esque beat of the minor mode “Crescent City”, through the Miles Davis mid 1960s-inspired ballad treatment of the standard “Yesterday’s”, to the Ornette Coleman-esque time-no-changes original composition “Broadway Fools”, there is a variety of perspectives here on contemporary acoustic jazz music making.

Even though the album does contain an example of Marsalis once again displaying his best Ben Webster-like impersonation and an interesting take on Ornette Coleman’s “Lonely Woman”, the best of this session is superb.

Listen here to the album’s lead off track, the Wayne Shorter classic composition “Yes And No”, which shows the quartet on fire and inspiring one another to a passionate performance.

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Trio Jeepy

Recorded in 1988, this CBS recording sans piano shows Marsalis performing a series of jazz standards from the old, Fats Waller`s “Makin’ Whoopee’” to the new, Ornette Coleman`s ‘Peace’.

The session is split into two contrasting trios (one featuring legendary bassist Milt Hinton and the other Branford’s regular quartet bassist of this period, Delbert Felix), the constant being drummer Jeff ‘Tain’ Watts.

The results make for a fascinating contrast.

Whereas the latter trio tends towards modernism and abstraction, including an almost completely free take on “Doxy” with its time-no-changes approach, the former trio, perhaps because of the presence of the elderly Milt Hinton, takes a much more pronounced traditional take on its material.

This approach takes Branford into a series of Sonny Rollins inspired performances (referencing albums in particular like Rollins’ “Way Out West” and “Live at The Village Vanguard”). There is something of a jam session feel about the recording, with false starts and studio chatter left on the released performances.

It all adds up to, especially on the Hinton side of this session, a relaxed enjoyable romp through its material.

Listen here to the wonderful slow blues number “Gutbucket Steepy” with Marsalis, who is heard exclusively on tenor saxophone throughout the session, excelling in this traditional approach.

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Crazy People Music

This spectacular effort recorded in 1990 is undoubtedly one of the highlights of Branford Marsalis’ recorded output.

Paired once again with the incomparable Kenny Kirkland and Jeff ‘Tain’ Watts, the bassist for the session is the equally fine Robert Hurst.

In many respects, this session is a summation of all the very best elements in Branford’s music making up to this point. Here, the whole band, but Marsalis in particular, really pushes into as intense and passionate a series of performances as possible.

The disparate elements that characterised previous releases are still in evidence (for example, from the Ornette Coleman-esque “Wolverine”, through a Coltrane inspired “The Dark Knight” to an ECM like performance of Keith Jarrett’s composition “Rose Petals”), but simply the level of execution is so high that one is swept along by its sheer power.

Listen here to the passionate up tempo swing of the album’s lead off track “Spartacus, with each member of the quartet in absolutely stellar form.

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Requiem

After several years recording principally in trio settings sans piano, this 1998 recording reunited Branford Marsalis with the pianist Kenny Kirkland. The results were some of the most significant music Marsalis had ever produced.

The maturity in the saxophonist is evident from the get go. His voice on both the tenor and soprano saxophones is now more personal.

Listen to the intimacies of his soprano work on Paul Motion’s “Trieste”, which shows considerable growth from his earlier, more contained efforts, good though they were.

Similarly, his tenor ballad performance in “A Thousand Autumns” has a depth and majesty that is now uniquely his own.

The music here ranges from the quietly pensive to the most ebullient outpourings often within the same song. On the whole, Branford’s compositions tend to be frameworks for group improvising rather than anything melodically memorable.

However, both “Bullworth” and in particular, the modal latin to swing burner “Doctone” do have attractive melodies that engage the listener before the frenzy of the soloing.

As an afterthought to this fine session, it marked the swansong of pianist Kenny Kirkland who passed away before its release, hence the album’s title.

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Eternal

This fine session from 2003 released on the Marsalis Music label features the second incarnation of the Branford Marsalis Quartet.

Alongside the saxophonist and long-time associate, Jeff ‘Tain’ Watts are now pianist Joey Calderezzo and bassist Eric Revis.

This line up was to remain stable for many years, taking in countless concerts, tours and recordings. The emphasis on this recording is on ballad playing very much in the vein of John Coltrane and his famous “Ballads” album.

Though Marsalis is by now fully secure in his own personal approach and this album never feels like an exercise in retro homage. The variety of material here like the hypnotic, almost cinematic “The Last Goodbye” and the moody rhumba treatment of “The Ruby and The Pearl” involve a series of beautifully conceived mood pieces.

Marsalis and band are absolutely hand in glove with this material and able to sustain some deeply felt performances.

Check out the wonderfully beguiling latin arrangement of the Evans and Livingston songbook standard “The Ruby and The Pearl” with Marsalis on soprano. Acoustic jazz music making of the highest order! 

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Braggtown

This recording from 2005 once again released on the Marsalis Music label and featuring the same group of musicians as the previous release, is in many respects its antithesis.

Whereas “Eternal” was contemplative and restrained, this present session highlights some of the band’s more aggressive and energetic approach. In Marsalis’ own words “that kind of high-energy music we’ve been playing in live performance.”

The opening track “Jack Baker” immediately plunges the listener into the kind of boiling modal swing Marsalis has been capable of delivering for literally decades by this stage.

The obvious parallels are with the early to mid-60s John Coltrane Quartet and it is quite evident that this is the template here. However, this is simply brilliantly executed music with no holds barred.

Unlike other contemporary saxophonists who have taken a more cerebral approach, Marsalis and his band always wear their hearts on their sleeve with much passionate performing here.

By contrast, numbers like Joey Calderezzo’s “Hope”, the Marsalis original “Fate” and the classically inspired “O Solitude” take us once more into the kind of musical territory “Eternal” had staked out.

It is with the high energy compositions, such as “Black Elk Speaks” with its furious free passages, ‘Tain’ Watts` modal “Blakzilla” and the aforementioned “Jack Baker” that this session really hits its stride with some outstanding contributions from all involved.

Listen here to the lead off track “Jack Baker” with its Coltrane-esque fanfare like theme that gives way to some powerful playing and propulsive swing.

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Thanks for reading!

What links all these Marsalis led sessions, is his commitment to presenting contemporary acoustic jazz.

The earlier efforts benefit greatly from the roll call of jazz greats the younger musician could call on to join him, no more so than the incomparable pianist Kenny Kirkland.

The more recent releases showcase a more mature saxophonist capable of some of the most passionate saxophone playing (either tenor or soprano) you can currently hear.

Although his love and reverence for those who proceeded him can at times create a sense of deja vu in his music making, at his best Marsalis transcends these influences.

These choices above reflect personal preference of the author and are made with the intention of encouraging the listener to further explore the vast discography of one Branford Marsalis.

For more great listening tips, check out our recap of some of the most famous saxophone players of all time, or our pick from the contemporary jazz scene

Discover Jazz
Discover Jazz

The label ‘Discover Jazz’ is attached to articles which have been edited and published by Jazzfuel host Matt Fripp, but have been written in collaboration with various different jazz musicians and industry contributors. When appropriate, these musicians are quoted and name-checked inside the article itself!