Portrait film of jazz saxophonist Branford Marsalis is an ephemeral look at a popular figure, its release well-timed to exploit his current high visibility as musical director on “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.”
Though made by the renowned documentarist Donn A. Pennebaker and his frequent collaborator Chris Hegedus, this Columbia Records-funded effort lacks insight and presents unmemorable music.
Marsalis’ sense of humor comes out in back stage and tour bus camaraderie with his pals and fellow musicians, bass player Robert Hurst and drummer Jeff Watts. Unfortunately, his extreme pretentions are also present, as Marsalis frequently makes pithy pronouncements on his philosophy of jazz, its history and racism that his own silver-spoon status and lack of proper dues-paying can’t justify.
In fact, his stress on touring as fundamental to a jazz man’s life and career is immediately contradicted by his taking the bread job (in the shadow of Doc Severinsen) on “The Tonight Show.” The rigors of a tour is unconvincingly exemplified here by a concert at Indiana University, with the trio filmed in sterile fashion totally lacking the atmosphere of a nightclub setting.
Film’s title comes from an interview in which Marsalis properly states that the popular notion of jazz equals freedom is not so. In fact the dictates of the musical setting determine the parameters of what a soloist plays. Unfortunately the group’s performances of various originals, with Marsalis mainly on soprano rather than tenor sax, are uninspired and hardly worth preserving on film.
Pennebaker and Hegedus would have done better to record a special event or extraordinary performance. Their work is briefly upstaged by a clip from Michael Apted’s superior 1985 documentary “Bring on the Night” showing Marsalis performing with Sting.
Elsewhere we see the sax star playing the national anthem with pianist Bruce Hornsby at the 1991 NBA All-Star game, chatting with Jerry Garcia before an unseen Madison Square Garden guest gig with the Grateful Dead, speaking to students at Prof. David Baker’s Indiana U. class, and in a studio recording the soundtrack for what looks like a TV documentary about Spike Lee’s “Mo’ Better Blues.”
Marsalis is undoubtedly talented but his place in jazz history remains to be seen. When he signs off at the college concert declaring “I hope we didn’t confuse you too much” the viewer may wonder whether the young star has earned our respect.