On last Monday night, at the Iron Horse Music Hall in Northampton, MA, Branford Marsalis performed with his quartet: Jeff "Tain" Watts on drums, Eric Revis on bass and Joey Calderazzo on piano. Marsalis played both the soprano and tenor saxes.
It is not surprising that the hall was packed to hear this quartet. The Marsalis name is almost like a magnet to listeners. I attended because I wanted to hear Branford, whom I believe has an edge to his playing that puts him in a category other than that which his brother, Wynton, so steadfastly holds.
Putting aside Marsalis's performance ethic which tends to deflect from the music, this quartet is a solid group. It is one of the rare collectives that has stuck together for awhile. The music that was performed was selected predominantly from two recordings- Watts’ BAR TALK and the new Marsalis CD, FOOTSTEPS OF OUR FATHERS. In addition, though, a slow, elegant piece by the late pianist Kenny Kirkland broke the upbeat highly rhythmic continuity that took over.
Generally, this quartet nailed the music cleanly and without as much adventure for which there is a an expanse of potential. However, I will say that Calderazzo nearly dominated the gig. He was charging almost the entire set until he had to rest. Calderazzo loves the treble; at one point he took a solo with his right hand only. The fingers on his playing hand arched and then flattened but never let up. He played very few heavy chords; he seemed to be attracted to the melodious nature of improvisation. Bassist Revis landed a consistent steady backbeat for the gig. He spoke to the timbre of the music, not throwing out any surprises.
Marsalis is an exceedingly fine musician. His technical prowess is outstanding. And he does put a tinge of expression within his performance. His rendering of one of the sections of Coltrane’s A LOVE SUPREME convinced me that Marsalis does have some guts. (The very idea anyway of performing and even recording this Coltrane piece automatically invites the weighty pressure of expectations from the listener.) Marsalis and Watts exchanged a powerful few minutes of conversation that had me going and screaming for more (this must mean that it approached reaching a plane that touches the heart). Marsalis faced the drums and drove his tenor. His knees were bent and he was blowing like no tomorrow was coming. Watts concentrated on his heavy sound which lends itself to the sticks on toms and cymbals more than on the snare. Yet, constraints existed; the two could not transcend the seemingly glamorous reasons for their being there. And they had to switch into another place to come out of the number.
Marsalis's FOOTSTEPS OF OUR FATHERS has recently been released on Marsalis’s own label, Marsalis Music. The CD manifests a more complete standard of excellence than the performance did at the Horse. Marsalis’ s playing overall is sharp, focused and has depth. His performance of A LOVE SUPREME does have its own non-Coltrane qualities; this fact alone gives the recording value. The pointedness of Lewis’s CONCORDE speaks to the breadth of Marsalis’s talents. Calderazzo demonstrates his bravura equally as directly. Watts and Revis contribute their unerring dedication to the music in their supportive sounds.
If an opinion in conclusion is to be had, it is this: historically, Marsalis is not reluctant to make his own statement. His willingness combined with his talents and those talented musicians he surrounds himself with can reach places musically they have never known, in terms of their finding the zone where spirit supersedes everything else. As their live performance showed, the spirit, that merely peeked out, was squelched. As the recording shows, the spirit, that can come out, is only beginning to do so. I wish that Marsalis would have the resolve to go for broke.