Branford Marsalis | 05.09.09 | NYC

By: Kevin Schwartzbach

Branford Marsalis Quartet :: 05.09.09 :: The Jazz Standard :: New York, NY

Branford Marsalis
The music of Branford Marsalis is a bit of an anachronism. Indeed, upon first listen his music sounds more akin to the post-bop and free form jazz artists of the late 1950s and '60s such as John Coltrane or Charles Mingus than any of his contemporaries. But, that's not necessarily a bad thing. Branford and his brothers Delfeayo, Jason and, of course, Wynton Marsalis have helped keep alive one of the greatest ages in the history of jazz that might have otherwise been a mere fossil in contemporary society. I caught a set (one of three that evening) of Marsalis' old school, bare-bones approach to jazz at the glitzy jazz club/upscale restaurant The Jazz Standard on the lower east side of Manhattan.

After I finished what were probably the most expensive chicken wings I've ever eaten, Marsalis started us off with Irving Berlin's "Cheek to Cheek," a prime example of the influences on Marsalis' work. This rendition was an ingenious rearrangement, taking a cheery show tune classic and turning it into a jazz masterpiece. The quartet quickly dissolved the song's main theme, diving into a foray of free form jazz. Drummer Justin Faulkner's hands became a blur of probability. The intricacies of free jazz drumming have always intrigued me. While a clear sense of meter could be heard, there is no repeated beat as there often is in other types of contemporary music. Faulkner's chaotically improvised drumming, with abundant complex and irregular rhythms thrown in, was a nice compliment to Marsalis' free form saxophone solo, which shot up chromatically into the stratosphere than cascaded down in a similar fashion.

The band effortlessly slid back and forth between unstructured jams, where each musician appeared to be in their own world, and tighter jams, where the musicians were keenly locked into one another. The hectic free form jamming gave way to the rapidly changing harmonies of post-bop over which Marsalis' solos were much more melodious. Giving his lungs a rest, Marsalis watched quietly as Eric Revis took a savory bass solo, his eyes gazing off in the distance, completely unaware of his surroundings. Meanwhile Faulkner and Joey Calderazzo (piano) were intently communicating with one another on some higher wavelength, picking up on subtle cues in the other's rhythmic patterns, fusing their playing together into a single entity.

Quartet's latest '09 studio release
Since the release of Creation in 2001, Marsalis' compositions have delved into various classical traditions far older than post-bop, and it was clear from some of Marsalis' song choices during the set that this tradition has seeped into his live shows as well. As Marsalis and Revis worked contrapuntally off each other, Calderazzo provided harmonic support, swiftly running up and down arpeggios. Calderazzo soon took over the spotlight on his sensual Steinway piano with a solo so expressive it nearly moved the audience to tears. It was clear from the expression on the pianist's face that he was pouring his heart and soul into his playing.

Marsalis once more took the lead. Each note he played seemed to hang in the air for an eternity, subsequently piercing through each listener's heart. The very sound of his soprano sax became a window into Marsalis' soul, sharing with the audience the very essence of his being. Moving from a soft, somber ambience to a turbulent frenzy, Marsalis' solo mimicked the nature of emotion itself. Though Marsalis' music can be closely identified with movements of the past, his saxophone playing is still highly idiosyncratic.

In this ephemeral age of Blackberries, iPhones and high-speed Internet, everything always seems to be moving a mile a minute. And music is no exception. While progress is generally a good thing in any field, every now and again we need someone to remind us of the past. In the world of jazz that someone is Branford Marsalis. Thanks to him and his brothers one of the finest eras in the genre has been preserved. What Branford does, however, is more than just reproduce sounds of the past. By adding his own creations in this style, he effectively brings this erstwhile music into the 21st century, not only preserving a snapshot of the past but also keeping this music alive and ever growing.

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[Published on: 6/12/09]

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