Branford Marsalis Quartet
Branford Marsalis (tenor and soprano saxophone)
Joey Calderazzo (piano)
Eric Revis (double bass)
Justin Faulkner (drums)
Plus guests for encore Julian Joseph (piano), Cleveland Watkiss (vocals)
Reviewed by: Julian Maynard-Smith
Reviewed: 12 July, 2023
Venue: Barbican Hall, London
For many jazz fans, the classic template for a tenor saxophone jazz quartet is the John Coltrane Quartet (1960-65); so it’s sobering to think that the Branford Marsalis Quartet, founded in 1986 with very few personnel changes since, has existed for over seven times as long. The bassist Eric Revis joined in 1997, pianist Joey Calderazzo the following year, and drummer Justin Faulkner (the ‘new’ guy) in 2009.
Sure, Branford Marsalis has taken a few different paths from the eighties on: stints with Sting and the Grateful Dead have endeared him to the rock crowd, and as a classical soloist he’s performed works by (amongst others) Copland, Debussy, Glazunov, Ibert, Mahler, Milhaud, Rorem, Vaughan Williams, and Villa-Lobos. But the quartet has been a constant. ‘I like playing sophisticated music, and I couldn’t create this music with people I don’t know,’ he’s said, and this deep familiarity was evident from the first bar of the concert when the quartet came out roaring with the Calderazzo composition ‘The Mighty Sword’ with Marsalis on soprano.
A switch to tenor led to Keith Jarrett’s funky and irrepressibly catchy tune ‘As Long as You’re Living Yours’, originally performed by Jarrett’s European quartet with Jan Garbarek on tenor. In the middle, Marsalis generously dropped out to make way for an energetic trio performance whipped along by a spirited piano solo from Calderazzo. Then a complete change of pace and mood with another Calderazzo composition, ‘Conversation Among the Ruins’ (incidentally, also the title of a Sylvia Plath poem): a ruminative piece evoking the classically inspired lyricism of Bill Evans, Marsalis back on soprano building to a beseeching solo before the band gently returned to quietude.
As if that weren’t enough of a contrast, next up was ‘There Ain’t No Sweet Man That’s Worth the Salt of My Tears’, first recorded in 1928 by a singer called Libby Holman and since covered by dozens of other performers (never mind the tune – who could resist that title?). The whole band frolicked in the fun of this playful tune but built it into a showcase for each performer’s talents with three solos (piano, bass, then drums) and playful sparring between saxophone and drums.
Back to gentle introspection for the Marsalis composition ‘A Thousand Autumns’, swept along by Faulkner’s mallets deftly switched to brushes, then back to mallets as Marsalis built to a climactic tenor solo, which was followed by a soft sigh of an ending from piano and bass, and a final fluttering exhalation from Marsalis. A hypnotic lullaby from which the audience was shaken awake by Eric Revis’s ‘The Last Day’, a tune that earned its apocalyptic title with an orgiastic performance from the band: a stabbing piano solo, a spirited battle between shouting soprano and pounding drums, matched (when the end was nigh) by the audience clapping itself raw, only to be given a soft landing by solitary bass and sparse piano. ‘The Last Day’ was over.
But the night wasn’t, because the encore served up a Duke Ellington medley starting with a lush and romantic ‘Mood Indigo’ on which Marsalis unleashed his inner Johnny Hodges or Ben Webster – followed by surprise appearances from Julian Joseph (replacing Calderazzo on piano) and vocalist Cleveland Watkiss for a joyful ‘It Don’t Mean a Thing (If it Ain’t Got that Swing’).
No question, the evening got that swing.