|The Branford Marsalis Quartet on the Tonight Show
Photo from http://www.branfordmarsalis.com
Branford Marsalis Quartet
(Queen Elizabeth Hall, Fri. 14th Nov. 2014, 10pm show. EFG London Jazz Festival. Review by Alison Bentley)
Branford Marsalis once made a record (Random Abstract, 1988) where he deliberately set out to play tunes in the styles of different saxophonists: Ben Webster, Jan Garbarek, Wayne Shorter, and so on. This gig showed how Marsalis’ influences have become accents in his own distinctive voice. And no recording could prepare you for the richness of the Quartet’s sound- their restless, disciplined energy.
They opened with pianist Joey Calderazzo’s Jack Baker’s Dozen, with its descending chords, a kind of reverse Well You Needn’t. The Rollins-esque rhythms of Marsalis’ tenor had an agreeable edge, like bitter chocolate. Calderazzo was a little drowned in the mix at first by the (improbably young) brilliant drummer Evan Sherman. At 21, he’s still a student but has already played with the likes of Jimmy Heath and Ron Carter. The sound people seemed to sort things out, and piano and drums began to pick up each other’s phrases.
Marsalis has talked about about the importance of contrast on a gig, changes of tempo and volume being the key to keeping audiences involved. This late show audience was utterly hooked. Calderazzo played a gentle introduction to bassist Eric Revis’ exquisite Maestra (from their 2012 Four MFs Playin’ Tunes CD). There were intimations of Debussy as Marsalis’ sensuous-toned soprano joined in, bringing a huge smile to Revis’ face. Marsalis’ notes sped up, as dazzling as the spotlights sparking on his sax keys. The very discordant notes of Calderazzo’s solo were played in a way that made them sound inevitable- and accessible. Revis’ bass tone was honeyed throughout the gig, and in particular in this unhurried, majestic solo.
Monk’s Teo (also from the Four MFs CD), like a super-caffeinated Tea for Two, took the tempo back up to classic minor swing. The dizzying pulse felt as precarious as walking on Tower Bridge’s new glass floor- everything was in place but there was a sense of danger, as if you could’ve fallen through at any second. Marsalis’ solo was almost visual with clearly-shaped phrases.
The band brought new and old together in Cheek to Cheek (from their 2000 CD Contemporary Jazz). There was a moment of bewilderment as you searched for the reworked tune amongst unfamiliar chords- and then a smile of relief as the treatment became more conventional. A bit like putting a Picasso next to a Rembrandt, and seeing how one thing can lead to another. The audience started clapping during Calderazzo’s solo, as the history of jazz piano from Tatum through Peterson and beyond emerged effortlessly over the luxuriant fast swing.
Apart from newcomer Sherman, the band have worked together since the late 90s. Their ease with each other showed in their banter about what to play next. ‘You wanna play that one?’ said Marsalis, and Calderazzo made the decision by playing some crazy montunos. Piano and tenor locked eyes and instruments in Ornette Coleman-ish tricky bop phrases, and driving swing. They swapped phrases with daredevil skill. Sherman’s solo had double-somersaulting paradiddles played with a wonderful sense of showmanship.
Calderazzo’s atmospheric As Summer into Autumn Slips couldn’t have been more different: bass bow rumbling against the strings, mallets scuffling gently against the snare, free piano chords (John Taylor-esque?) and spacious soprano trills. A very slow tango groove developed, and a beautiful elongated melody, Marsalis’ tone pure and Classical. The instruments faded out one by one till just the bass heartbeat was left.
It Don’t Mean a Thing was the contrasting encore, and London’s own Julian Joseph sat in on piano. The swing was relaxed but Marsalis kept on exploring, taking bop phrases and turning them inside out. A huge roar from the crowd showed how much Marsalis is appreciated- not just for this wonderful gig but for everything he and the band have learned from and brought to the jazz tradition.