The Branford Marsalis Quartet’s latest release is Eternal, a collection of ballads that Marsalis says on his Web site is an “expression of emotion … In particular it’s about the expression of melancholy. I was aiming for what Billie Holiday could do, which was to get to the emotions of each song.”
The piece that best conjures melancholy is “Gloomy Sunday” written by Hungarians Rezso Seress (music) and Laszlo Javor (lyrics). Jeff “Tain” Watts’ drumming captures the feeling of slow-rolling, gray clouds and together the band creates a brief downpour within the opening minutes of the piece. This song is legendarily known as a suicide song. It has been banned across the world at different times in different languages for “inspiring alleged epidemics of self-destruction” according to Rafi Zabor’s liner notes. But fear not; the band only provides the melody, not the lyrics that caused the turmoil.
“Once we decided to do an all ballad record, everyone in the band wanted to bring in a song,” Marsalis reports. Pianist Joey Calderazzo wrote “The Lonely Swan” and his playing really shines throughout. What I found fascinating is the selflessness of other band member’s compositions.
Watts wrote “Reika’s Loss,” yet the drums aren’t prominent aside from some cymbal work. It’s a song for a quartet. Bass player Eric Revis contributes “Muldoon,” a duet for piano and sax that he nor his instrument take part in.
“I was more concerned with showcasing each musician’s personal perspective, and the music was inspired in a variety of ways,” Marsalis said. There’s a certainty in what the band play; the songs have purpose and don’t meander, which is a hard task when all but one of the tracks clocks in at eight minutes or longer.
“All of the songs reflect the idea that there is beauty in sadness. Even sad songs sound happy when some people interpret them, like the singers who make ‘Black Coffee’ sultry,” Marsalis said. That beauty is especially on display during “The Ruby and the Pearl,” a lyrical piece performed with a Latin jazz vibe.
The only track I have trouble staying with is the nearly 18-minute title track, a song written to Marsalis’ wife, Nicole. While I enjoy portions, the piece as a whole doesn’t do enough to keep my interest the entire time. Marsalis says, “Nicole is complex,” but I don’t hear complexity in the music. I tune out, and the music becomes part of the background. Nothing dramatic draws me back to it.
Eternal is the perfect compliment for pensive moods. An excellent soundtrack when you are musingly thoughtful and a welcomed friend when you find your spirits depressed. I recommend it for rainy day afternoons of contemplation when you want to shut out the outside and immerse yourself inward.