Sketches of Harlem

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Review of 'Romare Bearden Revealed' by the Branford Marsalis Quartet

A couple of years ago documentary film-maker Ken Burns made a widely acclaimed series entitled Jazz: A History of America's Music. It was part of a trilogy of subjects - the others being the Civil War and baseball - that examined the core elements that contributed to the development of US society. Jazz was chosen as the only authentic art form to originate in the US. However, the series was not without controversy. In particular it was criticised for bringing its story to a halt in the 1960s and 1970s, ignoring the contribution of latter-day figures such as Keith Jarrett, Michael Brecker and Brad Mehldau.

Burns's major collaborator and consultant on the series was Wynton Marsalis, the Grammy award winning trumpeter and director of New York's Lincoln Centre jazz orchestra. He too has been criticised for an approach to playing that is regarded as being too obsessed with technical expertise and the preservation of the 'canon' of jazz heritage rather than capturing the free improvisational spirit that is supposedly its essence. For these reasons many jazz fans prefer the more liberated if less celebrated playing of Marsalis's brother, the saxophonist Branford. In fact these siblings are just a couple of members of a musical family that also includes two other brothers, Jason and Delfeayo, and pianist father Ellis. All of them can be heard on Branford's new album Romare Bearden Revealed.

The album takes its name and draws inspiration from the artist Romare Bearden, much of whose work celebrated the great 20th century musical heritage of Harlem. Indeed one of Bearden's final paintings was the cover art for one of Wynton's albums, a track from which is included in the set. The paintings from which the song titles draw their names are included in the album sleeve - though the CD format can hardly do them justice. The concept of the album is therefore an ambitious one, in that we are invited to merge two distinct art forms. As its sleeve notes suggest, the album encourages 'hearers to see the music, viewers to hear the paintings'.

The New York we are invited to imagine is one that underwent immense changes from the cultural and political flourishing of the Harlem renaissance through to the deprivation and blight of later decades. For the musicians themselves this often meant a highly precarious and degrading predicament. They were lauded in the downtown ballrooms and whites-only establishments such as the Cotton Club. Yet after-hours they were frequently forced to live in segregated squalor. Back among their brethren in Harlem many took comfort in late-night jams - where the music really swung - but also in drink and hard drugs.

Branford Marsalis is one of modern jazz's more interesting performers who is not afraid to stretch himself and try out new things - or indeed sacred old ones such as a reinterpretation of the previously untouchable John Coltrane masterpiece A Love Supreme. However, Bearden is not an album that breaks any new boundaries. It does not fully manage to evoke the ecstasy and agony of either the musicians who lived through these times, or those who lived in the rural South, the other main focus of Bearden's work. This is not to say that modern performers are incapable of great musical depth. Requiem, recorded by Branford's quartet in 1998, is a wonderfully moving album made all the more poignant by the bandleader's use of the soprano saxophone, a beautiful haunting instrument, and by the fact that the sudden tragic death of pianist Kenny Kirkland left us with an album recorded in only one take.

What we are treated to on Bearden is an enjoyable mix of old and new with tracks by jazz greats such as Duke Ellington and Jelly Roll Morton set alongside a number of original compositions. It's a good introduction to one of the very best of today's small bands. It includes a couple of great earthy blues numbers and should also encourage new listeners to seek out some early jazz classics.