By Curtis Zimmermann
While billed simply as an evening with Branford Marsalis it would be an insult to discuss his performance on Oct. 20 at the Morristown, NJ Community Theater without first mentioning his band. The quartet featured pianist Joey Calderazzo, bassist Eric Revis and drummer Jeff Watts. Together the four, who are arguably one of the tightest working groups in jazz, pushed each other with each note.
Just like everyone involved in today's scene, the musicians were questioning the definition of jazz. As people were howling between songs Marsalis joked how they didn't consider themselves a classical ensemble and would appreciate this sort of feed back. Beyond this the group tended to experiment with jazz forms. While not favoring any one particular period their music combined many styles including; Swing, Blues, Be Bop, Hard Bop, Neo Bop, Cool, Fusion and even Smooth. So perhaps Contemporary Jazz is an appropriate title for the new album, since nobody really knows what term means anyway.
The four-piece opened with "In the Crease" the CD's first track. The hard driving tune acted as an introduction to their interplay. Perhaps the finest moment of this tune was Watts solo, as Marsalis and the other two kept looping the melody to keep him on course, Watts thundered away at his kit producing an explosive polyrhythmic beat. The group continued to play in this manner for the next two tracks "Broadway Fools" and "The Impaler." During these numbers Marsalis' erratic Coltrane influenced playing was characterized by his lush solos and carefully placed (perhaps even misplaced) sharp and flat notes.
The show took a bit of a twist for the piece "Cassandra," a song that has very smooth feel to it. In the beginning both Marsalis and Calderazzo kept the piece on a course of mellow reflection. It even took on a bit of a symphonic feel with Watts using the back end of his brushes and felt tipped mallets to create a classical percussion arrangement. As the piece appeared to be mellowing out Marsalis came back in and quickly began pushing the tempo. Watts picked up wooden sticks and the group kept playing in an upward spiral. This suddenly transformed the work from a mellow "contemporary" piece to an intense acoustic replica of the Bitches Brew sessions.
Towards the end of the night Marsalis explained how people tend to request, sometimes rather audibly that the group play standards. To oblige this they performed Irving Berlin's "Dancing Cheek to Cheek" a track which also appeared on their latest CD. With a smile Marsalis explained these "songs people know" often get twisted until barely recognizable. Exactly as promised, after beginning the tune, which had transmogrified into a hard bop piece, they began to trail off even further. Berlin would be, well, there is no telling what his thoughts are on this one.
For the encore the four came on stage and began to produce a deafening sonic eruption. As the quake began to flood the hall they instantaneously came to a halt and shifted into a slow blues ballad. Towards the end of the piece as the tempo decreased they kept lowering the volume until the only thing left to be heard was Marsalis tapping the keys on his saxophone. Slowly, it was built back up and stopped on a dime, ending the show.
Whether he's viewed as an icon or just a player still looking for a style Branford Marsalis is truly an intriguing figure. With a performance such as this one there is almost no possible way one could lump him in with those playing adult contemporary jazz. Even as the tastes of his group change and purists (sometimes relatives) denounce him for his explorations into pop music, Marsalis and his band demonstrated that they had no desire to fight whatever musical direction they felt themselves being pulled. Is that not the intention of the music in the first place? Either way this soul searching has led to astounding results.