Requiem for a Heavyweight: Marsalis Bids Kirkland Farewell

By anyone’s estimation, it’s been a bad year for pianists. In January, the French virtuoso Michel Petrucciani died of a lung infection, at the age of 36, after having battled a rare bone disease his entire life. (Weirdly, his lush Solo Live album on Dreyfus Jazz has just come out.) In February Jaki Byard, 76, died of a gunshot wound in his Queens home, the circumstances mysterious. But while it’s vulgar (or worse) to attempt to rank tragedies, I think it’s fair to say that the New York jazz community was probably most shaken by the loss of Kenny Kirkland, 43, found dead of heart failure in his Queens home on Friday, Nov. 13.

Kirkland was, by all accounts, a sweet and gentle man, but his drug use had been an open secret in jazz circles for years. If his premature departure wasn’t completely shocking, it was no less frustrating–that old song about unrealized potential. He had a keyboard professor’s grasp of harmony and a buoyant, snapping touch. And for all that, exactly one album as a leader to his credit, the first-rate Kenny Kirkland (GRP) in 1991. His considerable reputation rested on his recorded work as a sideman, first on a series of albums by the Wynton Marsalis quintet that heralded the acoustic jazz renaissance of the early 80′s (most famously Wynton Marsalis and Black Codes From the Underground ), and then, when that group fell prey to sibling tensions, on a subsequent string of albums with brother Branford Marsalis, the final installment being Requiem (Columbia), which was released on March 23. (Branford Marsalis’ quartet, with Joey Calderazzo at the piano, will play the Village Vanguard May 4 to May 9.)

On a promotional video shot for the new album some months before the pianist’s death, a visibly weakened Kirkland explained that Branford “has taken care of me. He’s like a big brother and a best friend.… ” That made the news about Kirkland sound doubly wrong. How could someone inside the Marsalis’ charmed circle fall so grievously?

Branford himself has taken on a more autumnal air. (In our media culture, sometimes you can best appreciate your own mortality by watching a celebrity peer age in public.) On that video, Branford talks about “the freedom that comes from the anguish that comes with growing old.” In his typically dramatic, outsized way, Mr. Marsalis at 38 has become a champion for the passage into middle age and beyond, even though he, unlike most of us, looks like he could compete in the Olympic decathlon.

Almost two decades ago, Mr. Marsalis made his mark with a burly tenor tone and saxophone facility reminiscent of Sonny Rollins–that and a smart, wicked mouth all his own. Those gifts are still intact, only now he plays more soprano, with a fascinating disregard for conventional time that has become his own signature. On Requiem originals like “A Thousand Autumns” and “Lykief,” Mr. Marsalis serves as de facto conductor, pushing the quartet through constant modulations of tempo and dynamics; Paul Motian’s “Trieste” oscillates between French chanson and snake-charmer serenade. Drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts, whose debut album with nearly the same personnel, Citizen Tain (Columbia), will be out in late June, offers a typically busy and brilliant menu of polyrhythms but he’s rarely the timekeeper. Mr. Watts, Kirkland and the quartet’s new bassist Eric Revis function like the working parts of a single instrument keyed to the suspirations of the tall guy with the sax.

I like Requiem as much as anything Mr. Marsalis has done as a leader, as much as his live trio album from ’93, Bloomington (Columbia), or his ’88 rollick Trio Jeepy (Columbia) with old fox bassist Milt Hinton. For Mr. Marsalis, though, the new album is a reminder of what could have been, a mere first draft of the great album that had been in the works. The quartet laid down the tracks last August as templates for what Mr. Marsalis describes as the more organic versions that would subsequently emerge on tour, to be captured in the studio at a later date. Then Kirkland died. When the shellshocked trio returned to the studio in December, they realized that the original tracks, whatever their imperfections, would be Kirkland’s legacy. The music’s generally wistful, elegiac tone suited its new context and title– Requiem .

Mr. Marsalis appreciates, if that’s the word, the irony that on the tune “Bullworth” Mr. Watts plays a metronomic backbeat, his first pass at unfamiliar material, thereby insuring, inadvertently, that the album will get some radio play. But for the rest of us who are not burdened with an idealized Requiem in our heads, what leaps out aren’t Mr. Marsalis’ mistakes but his dexterity. He sends his melodies through the post-bop thresher–dense polyrhythms, abstruse forms–to have them emerge lovely but imbued with a bristling complexity.

Standard-issue boppers tend to regard melody as a quick sop to the audience before launching into a fancy series of chord changes. Mr. Marsalis says that the work of pianist Keith Jarrett, whom at Kenny Kirkland’s prodding he discovered fairly late in the game, helped him see that melody could be put to cool and radical uses. (“Lykief” is Branford-code for “like Keith”–a very interesting choice when you consider that Mr. Jarrett has made a second career of bashing the Marsalis family, especially Wynton, in print.) The other influence derives from Mr. Marsalis’ immersion in the Western classical tradition–”the cool shit like Wagner and Mozart, not the shit with the corny military beat,” he told me. The operas of Richard Strauss are his particular thing. “You hear these beautiful, simple melodies on top,” he says, “and then underneath this tense, turbulent harmonic shit.”

The public at large is perhaps not familiar with Branford Marsalis, all-purpose music intellectual. Over the years, he’s been tagged as the joker in the Marsalis family deck, the guy whose decision to tour with Sting occasioned the breakup of the original Wynton Marsalis quintet and whose recent stint as the leader of the Tonight Show Band embarrassed jazz purists everywhere. But it seems that the energies he devotes to his Buckshot LeFonque band, which plays a grab bag of black urban pop, has freed him to be a strict constructionist in the jazz realm. (He is Wynton’s brother, after all.)

“I played with Herbie [Hancock] after ‘Rockit,’” he says, “and when he played ‘Round Midnight,’ the audience booed. And I didn’t blame them. The lesson I learned is, keep the shit separate. Why does jazz have to have funk to get to the next level? Why aren’t they saying, ‘In order for Hanson to get to the next level, they have to incorporate jazz’? In France, they’re saying it’ll be the deejays who take jazz to the next level. Well, I think it will be someone who plays an instrument. I guess I’m old-fashioned.”

Actually, it wouldn’t be the worst thing if a little of the daffy wit of Buckshot infiltrated Mr. Marsalis’ earnest, occasionally long-winded jazz work (I’m thinking particularly of his last trio album, 1996′s The Dark Keys ), but this parallel-worlds arrangement seems to work for him. In fact, the older, wiser Branford describes himself as a healed man, personally as well as musically. The separation he discovered he couldn’t tolerate occurred in 1992 when he left his young son back in the East with his ex-wife to become Jay Leno’s musical sidekick. “That singularly immature decision affected everything I did,” he says. “At the end of the day, the most pressing question was not, ‘Do I like Jay Leno?’ It was, ‘Do I like myself?’ And the answer was No.”

In 1995, Mr. Marsalis returned–he lives in Westchester, just down the street from his 13-year-old son. “I cook up a storm,” he says. “I argue with him about homework every night.” Everything is in place, or it was, until Kenny Kirkland died. That he can’t do anything about. He feels the loss keenly, and he moves on, because that’s what grown-ups do.

Now Hear This…

· Virtuoso Cuban pianist Chucho Valdés, whose 1998 American recording debut, Bele Bele en La Habana (Blue Note), was a joy even for those gringos who didn’t know they liked Latin jazz, settles in with his quartet at the Village Vanguard, March 30 to April 4 and April 6 to April 11.

· Pianist Billy Taylor has been playing the role of jazz ambassador for so long, you could forget he actually plays. Better than ever, actually, on the evidence of a new and first-rate solo album, Ten Fingers–One Voice (Arkadia Jazz). His trio performs April 8, 7 P.M., at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.