The Armstrong cuts feel more workmanlike. Practically everything that Armstrong ever recorded still circulates, limiting the degree to which even an ensemble as talented as Marsalis’ can go off script, so to speak, without annoying the cognoscenti. Still, there’s no denying the charm of Reno Wilson’s spot-on vocal impersonations (Wilson’s portrayal of Armstrong is one of the highlights of Pritzker’s film) or the affectionate enthusiasm with which Marsalis puts his estimable trumpet playing at the service of reimagining Satchmo.
Bridging the Bolden-Armstrong divide are two renditions—one featuring the cornet, the other the trumpet—of the aptly titled Marsalis composition “Timelessness.” A gorgeous piece, it unspools and refines Bolden’s and Armstrong’s celebratory compression while tempering it with a mournful trace of “Wade in the Water” and foreshadowing the Ellingtonian exotica that would soon comprise jazz’s next great leap forward. In short, the song belongs as much to the future as to the past.
Something similar might be said of the Branford Marsalis Quartet’s The Secret Between the Shadow and the Soul (Sony) if by “the past” one means the 1970s, the decade in which the two cover songs, a slightly slowed-down take on Andrew Hill’s “Snake Hip Waltz” and a fully wound-up take on Keith Jarrett’s “The Windup,” made their debut. On almost any other contemporary jazz album they’d be defining moments.
The reason that they aren’t on The Secret is that any of the other five performances could be a defining moment too, the elegantly soothing “Conversation Among the Ruins” and “Cianna” no less than the rambunctiously improvisational “Dance of the Evil Toys” and “Nilaste.”
It only takes a little imagination to hear in them Bolden and Armstrong as refracted through a prism, after which their wheels within wheels spin free into orbits of their own.