Which is a shame, because while devotees of the downtown New York faction of jazz have been wrongly consigning him and Wynton to the same bin, Branford has been not-so-quietly producing some of the most explosively creative music of the last several years. Beginning with 1996's The Dark Keys, the elder Marsalis turned his back on mainstream acceptance in favor of a musical vision that is infinitely more complex and rewarding. On last year's stunning Requiem (so named because it was the last recording of pianist Kenny Kirkland) and on his newest, Contemporary Jazz, Marsalis and his quartet have reached levels of musical communication that bring to mind an updated version of the John Coltrane Quartet. On Requiem, Marsalis placed his tenor and soprano sax amid Eric Revis' bass lines, Kirkland's ever-more-abstract piano voicings, and Jeff "Tain" Watts' exploding polyrhythms, creating a delicate balance of abstraction, improvisation, and expansive musical form.
Contemporary Jazz continues in this vein, with Marsalis' warm saxophone tone and penchant for turning sweetly lyrical serving as a kind of grounding amid the swirling musical hurricane, somehow tying the edges together in coherent, often beautiful knots. Joey Calderazzo, an immensely versatile pianist, has filled in for the departed Kirkland in the best way possible: by sounding nothing like him. On the epic "Elysium," the quartet somehow floats from free-form parts into impossible-sounding rhythmic vamps and delightfully open soloing sections with an edginess that contradicts Marsalis' squeaky-clean image and the disc's title (which is probably the point). The fact that the group can then segue into a beautiful version of Irving Berlin's "Cheek to Cheek" shows that the quartet has a versatility almost unmatched in today's jazz world.