Of the Marsalis siblings, Branford has always been the most musically adventurous. This recklessness can have favorable results, as on his collaborations with Sting, or 1992's blues-tinged I Heard You Twice the First Time. But there have been flops, too: Buckshot La Fonque, his wacky hip-hop and jazz hybrid, was dreadful.
Fortunately, Marsalis has been on an upswing lately, and Braggtown, his latest, continues the saxophonist's winning streak. Superficially, it might seem like a mesh of suites and overtures, but Braggtown is really an old-fashioned blowing session in which Marsalis and his longstanding rhythm section deviate from theme-driven recordings in favor of something fresh and unrestrained.
As a bandleader, Marsalis has never been a grandstander, and so with this album you really sense each player's individual strengths. On "Fate," pianist Joey Calderazzo unleashes a deluge of notes, while drummer Jeff "Tain" Watts is a constant force throughout the record. As for Marsalis himself, he brings a tender yet rambunctious quality to "Sir Roderick, the Aloof," a trait that has made him such an exceptional saxophonist. And yet, his solo on "Black Elk Speaks" is straight free jazz, with Marsalis playing notes sideways, upside down, and even inside out. It's the best thing about him - his adventurous nature means you never really know what to expect.
- Charles L. Latimer
Building a Mystery Wintersong
Sarah McLachlan's Wintersong opens with McLachlan's whispery voice singing, "So this is Christmas ..." - from a cover of John Lennon and Yoko Ono's "Happy Christmas (War Is Over)." It's a curious way to start this holiday album since (A) it inadvertently suggests you're about to get a helping of yet another musician-turns-an-extra-buck Christmas album and (B) its politically themed call for peace sets up expectations of similarly minded song choices. Both of these points prove wrong, though, as (A) though there are several traditional Christmas songs on the play list, several more seem, er, "seasonal" at best and (B) the rest of the album is completely apolitical.
In fact, most of Wintersong is a confused affair, muddled primarily by McLachlan's inability to add anything distinctive to most tracks and her apparent lack of enthusiasm for an equal number of the songs. In fact, despite being the dreaded "Christmas album," it's about as soulless and mirthless as you'd expect a Celine Dion Christmas album to be (and Dion's was just that). There's something frustrating about the fact that Jessica Simpson brings more energy and interpretive creativity to her Christmas songs than the woman who sang "I Will Remember You."
There are some highlights, though, that make sitting through the rest worthwhile - and hey, even when Christmas songs are dull, they're never so bad you have to turn the volume down. "Happy Christmas (War Is Over)" is that rare Lennon cover that works, and McLachlan's take on Gordon Lightfoot's "Song for a Winter's Night," around for a few years now, is still worth returning to time and time again. A breathy cover of "Christmas Time Is Here" from Charlie Brown Christmas will make you mope, too, but at least there'll be a smile on your face while Diane Krall's fingers tinkle across background piano keys.
- Cole Haddon