Listening to this beautifully recorded, artfully orchestrated album does indeed evoke the sense of peace and timelessness reflected by its title: it is, in fact, Eternal. The latest album from Branford Marsalis eschews his traditional hard and fast jazz sound for a lyrical and lush collection of jazzy ballads. Many albums – be they by jazz artists or not – frequently alternate between musical styles, implicitly acknowledging that listeners don’t want to hear the same type of song over and over again. But Eternal is in its way a concept album of sorts, taking its cue from the principles reflected in its title and offering the listener a series of wonderfully reflective musical illustrations.
Indeed, Marsalis himself admits that “I didn’t want to just play familiar songs or songs from a fake book.” Instead, the album features two songs (“The Ruby and the Pearl” and “Dinner for One Please, James”) originally sung by Nat King Cole and a third (“Gloomy Sunday”) made famous by Billie Holiday. To those three standards each member of Marsalis’ band (Marsalis himself, together with Joey Calderazzo, Eric Revis and Jeff “Tain” Watts) added a new composition. Marsalis’ own composition – the title track – is a seventeen minute epic tribute to his wife Nicole. It’s an occasionally enigmatic, deceptively soft ballad that shimmers with mysterious valleys and evocative interludes.
According to Marsalis, each of the songs on the album reflect the unifying theme that there is “beauty in sadness.” His goal was to “get to the emotions of each song,” and he and his band did a wonderful job of doing exactly that. Subtle pauses intermingle with the eloquent wistfulness of Marsalis’ tenor sax on “Gloomy Sunday,” and Calderazzo’s piano slow-dances in counterpoint to Jeff Watt’s rumbling drum. The songs all reflect a similar symbiotic relationship between hope and despair, between joy and sadness, and they each evoke a timeless, eternal reflection on what it means to be alive.