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Romare Bearden Revealed by Branford Marsalis

Many who write about jazz realize that words, no matter which ones are chosen or no matter how craftily they are strung together, are never adequate to express the depths of the music. If music is described analytically, it misses the profound emotional effect the listener may receive. If writing about music attempts to cover its human impact, perhaps the recognition of technical nuances making possible its overwhelming effect may be missing. That difficulty of cross-media integration makes the appreciation of Romare Bearden’s paintings all the more absorbing, as jazz artists fortunate to have known him have understood throughout the last forty-plus years of his life. The National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. has honored Bearden, who died in 1988, with its first retrospective of an African-American’s art, and the Romare Bearden Foundation approached Branford Marsalis--who, along with his brother Wynton, owns several Bearden paintings--to record a CD commemorating the occasion.

Not only did Bearden incorporate images of jazz (musicians, instruments, nightclubs, dancers, street corners) in his artwork, but also he transferred some of jazz musicians’ ideas, such as the use of space or the development of flow, into his works. When Wynton Marsalis recorded J Mood in 1986, Bearden’s painting of a trumpet and trumpeter backed by undulating shapes adorned the cover. Appropriately, Wynton again re-creats "J Mood" on Romare Bearden Revealed, along with Branford’s quartet consisting of Joey Calderazzo on piano, Eric Revis on bass and Jeff "Tain" Watts on drums. The same quartet appears on the majority of tracks throughout the CD, as Branford switches from, say, soprano sax on Jelly Roll Morton’s "Jungle Blues" to tenor sax on "Seabreeze," for which Bearden wrote the lyrics.

As producer of the project, Branford Marsalis developed the repertoire to reflect Bearden’s interests, such as the three tracks of songs from which Bearden borrowed names for his paintings: "J Mood," Duke Ellington’s "Slappin’ Seventh Avenue with the Sole of My Shoes" and James P. Johnson’s "Carolina Shout." In addition, Marsalis wrote "B’s Paris Blues" in recognition not only of Bearden’s years of artistic development in Paris, but also of Sidney Bechet’s work there. Other tunes suggest a visual presence that is reminiscent of Bearden’s style, such as the loosely metrical feral sounds of "Jungle Blues" and the mannered blues of "Steppin’ on the Blues," which confines soloists within its strict, vertical quarter-noted-based framework.

Romare Bearden Revealed is consistent in its evocation of Bearden’s all-consuming musical interests. The styles represented on the CD vary widely; they’re all over the chronological map as it includes jazz from the 1920’s ("Steppin’ on the Blues") to the new millennium ("Tain" Watts’ tribute to inspirational drummer Billy Higgins in "Laughin’ & Talkin’ [with Higg]", which appeared on Watts’ CD Bar Talk). Yet, the images suggested by the music help to outline the multiple perspectives of Bearden’s personality.

In some respects, the music of Romare Bearden Revealed is more suggestive of brother Wynton’s recordings as it investigates, for the most part, music from past generations, including Ellington’s, Morton’s, Johnson’s and Lovie Austin’s. Guitarist Doug Wamble’s solo performance of "Autumn Lamp," an unhurried and twangy country blues, recalls Bearden’s youth in North Carolina before moving to Harlem, and it too brings to light music from a previous generation as well. Even Harry Connick, Jr. revisits James P. Johnson as he and Branford on soprano sax play "Carolina Stomp" to close the CD with panache and a spirit that, in the end, arises from their New Orleans roots.

One of the standout tracks on Romare Bearden Revealed is another Marsalis family reunion, commenced so successfully with The Marsalis Family: A Jazz Celebration. "Jungle Blues" becomes a joyous celebration of musical kinship as patriarch Ellis and brothers Branford, Wynton, Delfeayo and Jason perform in an unspoken give-and-take that eventually merges into a unified voice during a performance at the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts in Philadelphia.

As The Art of Romare Bearden travels around the United States throughout the next two years, Branford Marsalis’ Romare Bearden Revealed represents an unseen musical accompaniment to the artwork that will be viewed in various museums, even as Bearden’s visual forms hint silently at the notes, phrases, songs and joys of jazz. Accordingly, the liner notes include reproductions of ten of Bearden’s works, which capture the images of the music.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Branford Marsalis
  • CD Title: Romare Bearden Revealed
  • Genre: Straight-Ahead / Classic
  • Year Released: 2003
  • Record Label: Rounder Records
  • Tracks: I’m Slappin’ Seventh Avenue, Jungle Blues, Seabreeze, J Mood, It’s Paris Blues, Autumn Lamp, Steppin’ on the Blues, Laughin’ & Talkin’ (with Higg), Carolina Shout
  • Musicians: Branford Marsalis (saxophones); Joey Calderazzo (piano); Eric Revis (bass); Jeff “Tain” Watts (drums) Guests: Ellis Marsalis (piano); Wynton Marsalis (trumpet); Delfeayo Marsalis (trombone); Jason Marsalis (drums); Harry Connick, Jr. (piano); Doug Wamble (guitar); Reginald Veal (bass)
  • Rating: Three Stars
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