Reviews & Opinions

BRANFORD MARSALIS AT MCG
Jazz Road Trip -- Feb. 6, 2015

Gary Finneyby Gary Finney

Friday, February 6th found me in Pittsburgh to hear Branford Marsalis’ quartet. This wasn’t the first time for hearing him; far from it. The first time was in 1987, when he was not the leader, playing with Herbie Hancock, Buster Williams and Al Foster. A couple of months later, probably like many of you, I heard him for the first time as a leader when he performed at the Erie Summer Festival of the Arts (when it was held on the Villa Maria campus). During the drive to Pittsburgh, there was a curious thought simmering in the rear quadrant of my cranium and indulging in it was something that I really wanted to avoid. We’ll get to that a little further in to this opinion.

Previous Encounters.

Confronting a blinding March snowstorm in 2005, my ears led me to Youngstown to hear Marsalis once again. Branford’s quartet of that time was pianist Joey Calderazzo, bassist Eric Revis and Jeff “Tain” Watts at the drum kit. Calderazzo had been with the quartet since 1998, having replaced the late Kenny Kirkland. His playing style is expressive, fearless and thoroughly modern.  Revis joined the quartet in 1997, following the departure of Robert Hurst.  He has a resonant tone which you “feel” as much as hear, whether on ballads or barn-burners. And “Tain”? Well, he’d been with Marsalis since birth, or something close to it. While chatting with Watts after the performance, my opinion was put forth that he had now inherited the “king of the polyrhythm throne” from Elvin Jones (Jones passed away the preceding May). Hearing that, Watts grinned unabashedly.

The empathy, with which the four musicians played, that night, was nuanced and supportive as the varied program shifted from fiery playing to hushed whispers. Now keep in mind that the junior member of this quartet had seven years tenure. This is pretty unheard of in the world of jazz, where fresh faces and instrumentation equals new ideas to keep the leader’s music fresh. Also keep in mind that I attend a lot of jazz performances each year. I mean A LOT. But as I left the hall that evening, the overriding feeling that I came away with was that I’d just heard the BEST working band in jazz, bar none.

Branford MarsalisBirds.

Fast forward to June of 2013, when Marsalis’ quartet played at the Burlington, Vermont jazz festival. Dave Douglas’ quintet was scheduled to perform the following night, which, along with the Green Mountains, Lake Champlain and Magic Hat Brewery, made it seem worth the ten-hour drive. Watts had left Marsalis’ quartet in 2009 and was replaced with a seventeen year-old drummer who, outside of Philadelphia, was virtually unknown, at the time. The fact that this sounded so reminiscent of a seventeen year-old Tony Williams joining Miles’ band in 1963 just further fueled my curiosity to hear how the quartet’s dynamic had changed.

To describe this performance, we have to envision, not Charlie Parker, but real birds; lots of them. When you watch a flock of songbirds during migration, it’s impossible to discern a leader, yet they bank, climb and descend en masse with a fluidity of movement that’s, well, frankly inconceivable. That was the Branford Marsalis Quartet that night. Drummer Justin Faulkner, despite his young age (early on, he couldn’t hang out with the band in bars after gigs because of legal age problems) played as though he had always been their drummer. But the band as a whole had matured so much. During very lengthy improvisations, there were numerous shifts in direction, dynamics and feeling and it was impossible to discern who initiated them. It is my belief that each member did so, at some point in the evening. And the other three musicians followed in graceful, telepathic symmetry, just like a flock of songbirds. I was stunned; this was an absolutely breathtaking performance. As I left the hall that evening, the overriding feeling that I came away with was that I’d just heard the BEST working band in jazz, bar none.

Branford Marsalis Quartet -- Feb., 2015And Now.

So it seemed important, on the drive to Pittsburgh, to forget past impressions and experience the night’s performance on its own, completely in the moment. Faulkner now has a mustache, is old enough to have a drink with the band and has been with the quartet for nearly six years. Calderazzo has now played with Marsalis for seventeen years, Revis for sixteen. The music this night was fiercely urgent. Marsalis played the soprano sax for the majority of the night and his tone was aggressive, his attack relentlessly jabbing. Calderazzo frequently rose from the piano bench, his body English indicative of the passion in his playing, as flurries and torrents of notes rose and fell commensurate with Faulkner’s roiling avalanche of rhythms. For most of the set, it appeared that the pianist’s eyes were locked upon his young rhythm section partner. Bassist Revis, no stranger to adventurous jazz (the Tarbaby trio) was in the fray with the intention of not being eclipsed. His fingers moved about on the bass with the darting movements of an alarmed spider. His focused gaze alternated between Calderazzo and Faulkner as he responded/led the trio of rhythm-mates in its undulating tsunami of musical derring-do. When not passionately blowing, Marsalis was simply beaming.

As I drove back to Erie that evening, the overriding feeling that I came away with was that I’d just heard the BEST working band in jazz, bar none.

February 10, 2015