Branford Marsalis brings mirth and melancholy to the Schermerhorn

Author: Ron Wynn
Date: January 25, 2012

Saxophonist, bandleader and composer Branford Marsalis’ writing and playing has become steadily more adventurous and challenging since he chose to concentrate on his quartet in the late ’90s. Friday night at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center, he gave a packed house ample example of how much he’s moved beyond the emulative fare that was his specialty when he made his debut as young player with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers in 1980.

The evening’s program was divided into a duet segment – with Marsalis (soprano and tenor sax) and pianist Joey Calderazzo – and a quartet portion that added bassist Eric Revis and drummer Justin Faulkner. In both sets, the music was always extensive and invigorating. It might have gotten a bit too unconventional for those preferring basic 4/4 and 3/4 time signatures and simple songs forms. The Marsalis duo and quartet pieces never veered into the avant-garde, but there were pieces that lasted between 15 and 20 minutes. Some had multiple sections, and most weren’t variations on familiar melodies. Even when they did perform traditional parts of the jazz canon, the Marsalis ensemble did them in a manner that spotlighted both the individual member’s brilliance and group’s desire to keep stretching the music’s fabric.

The opening segment featured Marsalis and Calderazzo mostly doing selections from their recent album Songs of Mirth and Melancholy. These tunes were largely slow or mid-tempo pieces, designed to carefully balance solos, counterpoint and unison sections. “The Bard Lachrymose” alternated rich, whirling Marsalis soprano sax lines with equally compelling Calderazzo rhythmic phrases. The tune wound its way to a soothing, engaging conclusion. “Bri’s Dance” was a frenetic work, with Marsalis’ tenor alternately warm and bluesyCalderazzo initially embellished Marsalis’ playing then contrasted it with an energetic solo. It was a mix of furious flurries and crisp colorations, with an impressive last statement while he made his way back to the central melody. They ended this number with Marsalis’ delivering a humorous refrain and Calderazzo smartly countering it. The set’s only negative aspect was some occasional rambling by both players. The absence of rhythm instruments, coupled with Marsalis’ willingness to give Calderazzo lots of space and time, sometimes resulted in more piano contributions than some listeners expected. Marsalis’ soprano playing also was sometimes introspective to the point of becoming introverted, with too much emphasis on mood and tension rather than range and effect. But he kept the notoriously difficult instrument in tune, and usually knew when to shift into robust, animated fashion. This kept almost all the songs from becoming tedious.

The quartet got the night’s loudest and most frequent applause and reaction. That was partly due to the increased intensity Revis and Faulkner brought to the stage. Faulkner didn’t get many solos, but his playing was consistently spectacular. His accompaniment had the proper balance between driving the band and varying its pace. Nothing, including bass drum and cymbal contributions, was out of proportion. His textures on “The Mighty Sword” provided a consistent, surging foundation that Revis nicely contrasted with thick, fluid notes and expressively articulated statements. On slower, softer numbers, he and Revis decreased their volume without sacrificing energy, giving Marsalis and Calderazzo ideal assistance. Marsalis’ best tenor work came on “The Mighty Sword.” He executed a series of mid-register swoops and dips, then segued into an impressive linear journey. Calderazzo was reflective on his composition “As Summer into Autumn Slips,” but offered darting, furious work on “The Mighty Sword,” showing he could also swing with joy.

Though original composition was their predominant direction, Marsalis’ quartet didn’t totally ignore standards. They did an amazing version of “Our Love Is Here To Stay.” Marsalis played the melody on tenor with a gentleness and ease that accented the tune’s romantic lyrics. His tone was lush and smooth, his solo forceful, yet serene. Calderazzo took a different tack here as well. He eschewed the complex progressions and harmonics of some earlier solos in favor of a simpler, intriguing style that revealed his lighter side. The quartet completed their set with a spirited version of Duke Ellington’s “It Don’t Mean A Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing).  Revis and Faulkner provided their strongest solos, and Marsalis and Calderazzo were animated and delightful. They didn’t distort or subvert the melody, but took some captivating twists and turns in their solos away from it. They rediscovered it on the back end, and wrapped the set with some elegant flourishes that earned a standing ovation.

They returned for a poignant encore. Marsalis talked about the impact of the legendary (and quite notorious) New Orleans saxophonist/clarinetist Sidney Bechet, whose innovative playing was often overshadowed by a combative, colorful personality. Bechet titled his autobiography “Treat It Gentle,” and that was what Marsalis named the evening’s last piece. It was a beautiful tribute work.  Marsalis’ altered his tone to echo Bechet’s wavery, almost trembling sound. Calderazzo echoed the traditional Crescent City keyboard style with plenty of block chords and blues licks.  Revis and Faulkner also inserted elements of the brass band and old-time New Orleans style into their backdrops. It was the closest the quartet got the entire evening to vintage material, and was a most appropriate finale for a band usually more dedicated to exploring future directions than celebrating past ones.