It happens in all the arts. The artist debuts and beguiles the music/art/literary world and even attracts a wider public for a brief while. But after a few years it's clear the artist is spent creatively. S/he's reduced to recycling that early success in different guises or formats, but it's all too clear the well's run dry.
And then there's the other kind, who's not much in the public eye, except when new work needs seeing or reading or hearing. Most of the time this artist is rooting around in the world, and, when the time's right, reporting back to us.
Of course we're more interested in this 'other' kind of artist, even to the point of becoming fans--reading the new novel, downloading the new music, seeing the new work on the strength of all the work that has come before. In a sense, we trust the brand.
But what to do when that trust seems misplaced? When the artist goes off in a new direction, or turns inward, changing the basis of our relationship as viewers, listeners and readers? What do we do then?
From left, Joey Calderazzo, piano;
Eric Revis, acoustic bass;
Jeff "Tain" Watts, drums;
Branford Marsalis, saxophones
These are the sorts of rueful questions I've been asking myself lately about jazz saxophone player Branford Marsalis, a gifted and complicated musician who avoids the spotlight almost as much as his brother, jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, seeks it out.
Since leaving his post as musical director for one of the late-night broadcast TV shows, and since leaving Columbia Records, his label for many years, Marsalis has insisted on the right to go his own way.
As the group's leader has said in recent interviews conducted for Metamorphosen, his newest release on the Marsalis Music label, he seeks growth and development for the quartet as a unit, as an ongoing musical conversation that enriches all participants--a worthy goal for sure.
The last change in the quartet's personnel came with the addition of pianist Calderazzo, who replaced long-time quartet member, the late Kenny Kirkland. That was nearly ten years ago. All the available evidence suggests each of the four players is in it for the long haul. But, and I don't say this easily, I've pretty much decided that I'm not.
IS ETERNAL MARSALIS'S BITCHES' BREW?
In the jazz world, people say you can divide Miles Davis's fans into two camps: pre- and post-Bitches' Brew, the album through which Davis declared that he was abandoning the stuctures, the instrumentation and the style of what was then a fairly rigid post-bebop jazz format, for something newer and freer. You can put me in the center of the pre- camp.
John Coltrane didn't talk much, from what I understand, about his gradual shift into music that I and many others found inaccessible and unrewarding. Honking, some people called it. I just thought his music got further and further Out There, and from what I heard, I couldn't see much point in following.
The same thing has happened with Branford Marsalis.
I first noticed the change of direction with what I thought was a pretty flaccid collection called Eternal. Followed by Braggtown, which has more energy than its predecessor but feels hard and caustic, not so much inaccessible or unrewarding as unpleasant. And Metamorphosen, the Marsalis quartet's latest, continues in the same vein.
With the release of Metamorphosen, Marsalis has now assembled three bodies of music that chart essentially the same musical course. It's clear Marsalis and his quartet will continue down this path, a path I find, sad to say, boring. This by now not-so-new focus doesn't feel like abandonment, but it does feel like a loss. A big one, and one that, more than anything else, just makes me feel sad.
ADDENDUM, MAY 9
Coltrane's A Love Supreme Live in Amsterdam was recorded live in that city's Bimhuis Jazz Club in March, 2003. I have it as a 2-CD (one audio, one video) set from Marsalis Music. The video includes an interview with Marsalis as well as an interview Marsalis conducted with Coltrane's late widow Alice Coltrane, herself an accomplished jazz pianist.