Review: Branford Marsalis Quartet

Branford Marsalis Quartet
(Queen Elizabeth Hall, London Jazz Festival, November 15th 2009)

Branford Marsalis ‘ Quartet has been out on the road for a couple of months now. Last night at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, Marsalis was telling stories about some of the things which can go wrong on tour. Like the anecdotes which he had attempted to tell on-stage, only to find them falling flat without any English-speakers in the audience. Like the tragic tale of Eric Revis ‘ treasured high-strung double bass, of how it had teetered off a Turkish luggage carousel, pirouetted, fallen, and smashed.

But, when improvising musicians tour, other things inevitably happen as well. The sound of a band emerges, they find those particular areas in which they can push the collective, collaborative experience of making music to the absolute limits. And try new ones. The more often a band tells a story, the more convincing and exciting it can become. Or so it should.

The audience last night were responding to the collective vibe of this band with increasing enthusiasm, clapping and cheering as the rhythmic intensity gathered. All of the talk, all the excitement seemed to be about teenager Justin Faulkner from Philadelphia. As one commentator put it afterwards on Twitter: “Branford Marsalis has got himself another monster drummer! “ Faulkner is clearly an extraordinary natural talent. Forceful, dominant, but also capable of reining right back, as he proved in the two ballads by pianist Joey Calderazzo.

But- possibly alone in a very enthusiastic hall?- I found the quartet’s performance of the faster numbers a bit one-geared. They have found what excites, what gets the response,so they were cutting straight to the chase every time. The rhythmic tension is a given, it’s standard equipment, there’s no build-up to it. If there was a direction of travel of the set, it seemed inexorably, predictably to be moving towards the mother of all drum solos by Faulkner. Joey Calderazzo wasn’t so much applying full arm-weight to the piano as bench-pressing it. Eric Revis was always busy, but bass players are by necessity a stoical breed who need to be resigned to the fact of life that their weapon of choice can’t always be heard in the heat of battle. Marsalis himself seemed to be reducing his role to the constant throwing out of rhythmic challenges.

There were – with musicians of this calibre there always are – things to enjoy. The two ballads which Marsalis played on soprano were long-lined and fluent, and his soprano sound is sheer pleasure. W.C. Handy’s St Louis Blues, with Julian Joseph sitting in on piano had the Marsalis soprano sax sound joyously transported back to pure Bechet and to the streets of either New Orleans, or possibly Antibes.

I know what these musicians are capable of. Branford Marsalis’ 1999 album Requiem is for my desert island. I can’t help it: I just found myself wanting more.

Check out a New York Times article about Justin Faulkner

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