November 25, 1991 12:00 PM

Branford Marsalis Trio

Putting a saxophonist of Marsalis’ caliber in a recording studio with just bass and drums—no piano—is a little like turning Michael Jordan loose in a schoolyard with two Bulls teammates and saying, show us what you can do, men, have a blast, go crazy.

Subtracting the piano opens up lanes for the soloist. With fewer harmonic constraints, there’s more room to invent, more time to spin and soar—and to fall flat on your face if you lack stamina or imagination.

Marsalis lacks neither. On soprano as well as on tenor, his tone is rich and round, his phrasing and rhythm beautifully fluid. Bassist Robert Hurst and drummer Jeff Watts not only stay with him they set moods, challenge him and solo bracingly themselves.

At times in these ambitious excursions (the eight cuts last about eight to 14 minutes each) you wonder if Marsalis—a supple rather than an explosive improviser—has run out of gas. But he quickly takes off again and never resorts to patterns or the handy escape valve of shrieking, whistling and other kinds of rampaging in the overtones above the horn’s normal range. The same can’t quite be said for tenor saxophonist Courtney Pine, the leadoff soloist in “Dewey Baby,” one of two guest spots on the album.

The other guest, in “Cain and Abel,” is Branford’s younger brother Wynton. Despite the title it’s a total romp, the trumpeter and the saxophonist, on tenor, entwining, teasing, giving and going like a musical Michael and Magic. (Columbia)

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