Branford Marsalis Quartet: 'Just' Playin' Jazz

Publication: Martinez News-Gazette
Author: Gordon R. Webb
Date: September 30, 2012

Fellow musicians, critics and the listening public alike must have thought jazz saxophonist Branford Marsalis had lost his mind back in 2009, when he hired 18-year-old Justin Faulkner to replace Jeff “Tain” Watts on drums. After all, Watts – regarded by many as the preeminent jazz drummer of his generation – had been in Marsalis’ quartet for nearly a quarter century and Faulkner was still in high school! But as we all know, there is a fine line between genius and insanity, and as it turns out, Marsalis’ decision was crazy-smart.

It was a sure thing!” says Marsalis. “I heard him play a slow blues and that was it … I knew it. He understood how to groove, and that the key to swinging isn’t in the beats you play, it’s the space in-between the beats … and he had a great left hand. The kid was raw, but the potential was there and I knew we could teach him everything else.”

After a two year jazz ed incubation period, Marsalis ushered Faulkner and longtime collaborators Joey Calderazzo (piano, since 1999) and Eric Revis (bass, since 1997) into a Durham, N.C., church last October, to record tracks for a new album. The results were released in August 2012 on CD and vinyl, entitled “Four MFs Playin’ Tunes (Marsalis Music).” But please don’t let the off-hand title fool you into thinking the new record is some half-hearted jam session, because this is serious, modern jazz, spiritedly performed at an extraordinarily high level. The title comes from there being no overall concept or theme involved in the making of “Four MFs Playin‘ Tunes.”

Our concept is just to play jazz,” says Marsalis in the overview promo video. “Learn 100 years of it … and play whatever.”

Every moment of “whatever” has a refreshingly loose, living-in-the-moment feel, but it’s a well-rehearsed spontaneity that comes from years of building trust on the bandstand. “The Mighty Sword,” which opens the album, proves the new-kid-on-the-drums Faulkner to be an instant revelation – a limb-flailing, ride cymbal bashing, Elvin Jones-like whirling dervish. The brilliant Calderazzo is practically tap dancing on top of the piano keys, while he and Marsalis swap melodic story lines – devilishly weaving in and out, all around and in between each other. A high level of intensity is maintained throughout, leaving the pianist gasping a bit at the end, and heard to mutter, “It is really hot in here.”

Sustained intensity – even on the ballads – is a critical component to Marsalis’ tight-knit unit’s take-no-prisoners approach. “Jazz should be played with intensity and I pride myself on my level of intensity,” Marsalis told me a few days ago. “And I thought Joey, Revis and I played with intensity, but the way that kid (Faulkner) played … he dragged us up to his level.”

Jazz tends to be too analytical, which interferes with its musical possibilities,” he added. “In order to sustain intensity throughout a performance, you have to be in the moment and be committed to that moment – not trying to impress anyone. There’s no magical technique.”

There is, however, something seemingly magical about a Thelonious Monk tune in the hands of a Branford Marsalis band, and according to Marsalis; the secret is, “The slower you play them, the better they sound.” Monk’s “Teo” does not disappoint, as band members playfully bounce off each other in an appropriately tipsy fashion, while Marsalis tongues away on his burnished tenor like a frenetic Sonny Rollins. “Monk is the quintessential jazz composer,” says Marsalis. “His compositions are magical, the melodies are infectious and every song swings its ass off!” No one was satisfied with the first take’s static drum groove, but when Faulkner spiced things up by rolling out some tasty Afro-Cuban beats, take two was a keeper – as Monk  himself would have been on his feet and dancing.

Recording this band is easy,” explains Marsalis. “It’s like a gig, only we turn on the tapes. A lot of other guys worry about being perfect. They want to overdub their solos to make sure it’s ‘right.’ Who do you want to get it right for … the critics in DownBeat? If you want to get it right, then practice! With us, it’s two takes and ‘see ya.’ It’s jazz!”

The recording studio video footage is proof positive no overdubs were employed on the excitedly brisk, walking bass blues of “Whiplash.” Despite its relatively simple six-beat repeating head, nothing sounds even remotely commonplace, as tenor sax, bass and drums take off on a nice, bouncy stroll – Calderazzo doesn’t enter until the 3:30 mark – with Marsalis’ massive tenor “leapin’ and lopin’” along to Revis’ swinging-for-the-fences conception. Still only 20 at the time of the recording, Faulkner is a monster here, demonstrating “groove within a groove” Tony Williams-type propulsion – firing off lightning quick ride cymbal/high-hat exchanges and tumultuous tom-tom fills.

Revis is a deep-toned delight throughout, playing with Jimmy Garrison like authority and giving each note seemingly well thought out meaning.

With overdubs, the sense of urgency is gone and you can hear that on a record,” Marsalis continues. “Even the possibility of an overdub means the urgency is gone. If your mindset is, ‘I can fix it later,’ it’s already ruined. But if you tell everybody you got one shot to do this s–, it becomes urgent as a MF! Everyone’s playing hard, now!”

The spontaneous urgency of “As Summer Into Autumn Slips” is due, in part, to the fact that – although Calderazzo had already composed the song in his head – he didn’t get around to writing it down on paper until a 15 minute recording session break. The beautiful hang-on-every-note tune is highlighted by Marsalis’ fearless sojourns into the upper register of the straight horn with nary a hint of shrillness. Following an intimate musical conversation between he and Calderazzo, Marsalis demonstrates another aspect of his personality by scrambling some serious Wayne Shorter styled eggs. After a mere 30 minute rehearsal, it was two takes and “see ya.”

The era of ‘the surprise’ in jazz music is gone,” laments Marsalis. “Most jazz today is like Olympic gymnastics.

Everything is carefully prepared, carefully rehearsed and then carefully presented, and you’re judged simply on your execution. But surprise is the best part of jazz. I still believe in the surprise.”

True to his word, “Four MFs” is chock full of surprises, even when drawing inspiration from past jazz saxophone titans Ben Webster and Sidney Bechet. The underrecorded 1930 standard “My Ideal” has Marsalis luxuriously caressing the timeless melody on tenor sax and conducting a ballad master class by soloing in a warm, relaxing manner reminiscent of Webster. And a completely unexpected old time New Orleans-vibed “Treat It Gentle” closes the album, with Branford’s rapturous soprano sax at times recalling a vibrato-less Bechet and other times sounding miraculously like a Dixieland clarinet.

More than three years removed from its quartet predecessor, “Metamorphosen,” the new album was well worth the wait, as the music is challenging, unpredictable and highly creative, yet thoroughly musical and relevant. The tunes are played with such confidence, maturity, skill and fearlessness; it may leave you with a casual impression on the surface, yet underneath lies a level of group expertise very few ever achieve. “Four MFs Playin’ Tunes” could very well be Marsalis and company’s best effort to date, although it’s a difficult statement to make when the bar has been set so awfully high by previous Marsalis Quartet recordings, “Braggtown” and “Eternal.” The joyous smile on Branford’s face during the recording sessions says it all about how he feels things went.

The new album is certainly the best of my non-‘A Love Supreme’ recordings,” concedes Marsalis. “I’m in my 50s, now. For most people, when they reach 50, it’s time to sit back on their laurels and make a declaration as to who they are. But I’m just starting to get good at it (jazz music) – same thing with Revis and Joey. We’re all practicing and trying to get even better.”

Unfortunately, if you wish to catch this dynamic, hardworking quartet in a live setting, you’ll have to wait till later next year. Branford Marsalis is coming to town Oct. 5, but it’ll just be the man and his horns playing at San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral. Following in the footsteps of such jazz saxophone luminaries as Joe Henderson, Jackie McLean, Steve Lacy and Dewey Redman, Marsalis will be performing solo under the auspices of the SFJAZZ Festival’s Sacred Space Series. Don’t let the lack of a band aspect dissuade you from attending what promises to be a spiritual and truly once-in-a-lifetime performance.

I’ve been listening to a lot of Coleman Hawkins, classical music, and jazz solo performances in preparation,” says Marsalis. “I also have some ideas or sketches that are only six or 11 notes. What happens from there …? It’s jazz!”