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Paris Jazz Diary 2015: Saxophonists Branford Marsalis, Azar Lawrence

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Paris Jazz Diary 2015: Saxophonists Branford Marsalis, Azar Lawrence
New Morning, Sunside jazz clubs
Paris, France
July 21-22, 2015

Back-to-back jazz nights featured dynamic saxophonists Branford Marsalis and Azar Lawrence performing in two of the top music clubs of Paris, both leading quartets. Marsalis was on the big stage in the 200-seat New Morning and Lawrence played in the more intimate Sunside jazz club. Both delivered with fire and ferocity, playing tenor and soprano saxophones at blur-speed tempos in bands that also featured highly potent pianists, respectively Joey Calderazzo and Benito Gonzalez.

A thoroughly modern musician, Marsalis never completely abandons his New Orleans roots, solidly injecting bayou street-sounds within a framework of constant innovation. His high velocity late-evening set at New Morning was enhanced by longtime colleagues Calderazzo, bassist Eric Revis and drummer Justin Faulkner.

As always, Marsalis came out blazing to deliver a series of bebop, ballads and a snazzy calypso numbers for the audience of 200-plus. On tenor sax, his fingers zig-zagged the length of the horn at near-inhuman speed. When he switched to soprano, Marsalis was an entrancing balladeer, shifting the mood with expertise, and expert's ease.

Piano virtuoso Calderazzo matched the leader's vigor, plunging into the dazzling keyboard-wide forays that have been his trademark with Marsalis since 1998. A consummate improviser, Calderazzo continually stretched his solo melody lines to their maximum borders, and often beyond, before "coming home."

Bassist Revis skillfully shifted with the Marsalis modes, employing his deeply massive sound to echo, then pursued his percussive intent to propel, as he has with this coalition since 1997. Drummer Faulkner, the apt successor to Jeff "Tain" Watts in 2009, displayed his polyrhythmic artistry via a prodigious ability to solidly underscore and carve out intricate dynamics.

Lawrence, 62, is a tenor and soprano master who can play both "in the pocket" and highly progressive styles. His far-ranging and impressive early years included 1970s work in New York City with Miles Davis, McCoy Tyner and Elvin Jones, rising to the challenge set by his predecessor, John Coltrane, before also working with Freddie Hubbard and Woody Shaw. The passion of those decades was demonstrated by Lawrence and his touring trio of the Venezuelan pianist, bassist Essiet Okon Essiet and drummer James Brandon Lewis.

The powerhouse coalition dug in strongly from the first notes and sustained that level to the last. They launched with "Elemental" (that Lawrence said he wrote for his next album), a 20-minute excursion filled with his angular solos, abetted by the pianist's lengthy invention. Next came another 20-minute exploration, this time for Gonzalez' lively "Brazilian Girl" samba, Essiet plucking the strings and slapping the wood shoulder of his bass against thundering power from drummer Lewis, the sounds surging repeatedly before closing with a calming tranquil segment.

Lawrence switched to soprano sax for another original, "Eye of the Needle," exploring its irregular minor elements with intricate patterns and superb intonation in a series of 32nd notes. A second samba came next as the vehicle for Charlie Parker's "Ko-Ko" that Gonzalez illuminated with exuberant modulations at finger-blurring tempos. The 90-minute set was a prodigious performance that concluded with a buzz of comments from clusters of departing listeners.

The Lawrence quartet was part of Sunside's annual two-month-long American Jazz Festiv'Halles that staged an impressive roster of trios and quartets featuring pianists and horn players; the Marsalis performance at New Morning was part of the venue's month-long annual "Festival All-Stars" from June 29-August 1.

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