Arts Festival Review: Branford Marsalis
Arts Festival Review: Branford MarsalisReview by Tyler Hersey
Michael Fowler Centre
March 20, 2010
“Who needs setlists?” asked Branford Marsalis during his casual tour de force concert at the Michael Fowler Centre to close the 2010 NZ International Arts Festival. “Singers, that’s who. And light shows. It’s just the four of us up here, so if we can’t figure it out...” And with that, his quartet launched into a genre bending version of Monk’s “52nd Street Theme”, filtering influences from Rachmaninoff to Funkadelic into a performance of startling beauty and explosive strength.
By the time the band huddled to discuss their set-closing string of songs, they had already blown past any audience expectation that comes with holding the “major jazz act” slot during the festival. While 2006 brought contemporary fusion guitarist Pat Metheny and 2008 was octogenarian free jazz patriarch Ornette Coleman, bridging those two worlds this year was a show by one of the most prolific and sought after players in the genre. Owing to his involvement in diverse projects ranging from classical concerts to rap albums, Marsalis constantly absorbs far-ranging influences and filters them through his New Orleans-born but New England-educated sensibility.
Berklee School of Music in Boston is a university catering to those young musicians with the tenacity to practice many hours per day and quickly absorb the instruction of acknowledged masters of the craft. In the 1980's Berklee was a hotbed of fresh jazz talent learning from faculty who had their own touring bands and many connections in the industry. While a student at Berklee, Marsalis embarked on his first real tour, playing alto and bari sax for legendary hard bop drummer Art Blakey’s big band. The following year he toured with the bands of Lionel Hampton and Clark Terry, and a new jazz star was on the horizon.
Joey Calderazzo was the piano prodigy younger brother of a roommate Marsalis had at Berklee. The two met and recorded together during the late 1980s and stayed in synchronous orbits, Calderazzo playing in Michael Brecker’s band while Marsalis forged a career with his own groups. From his early involvement in large ensembles, often alongside traditionalist brother Wynton on trumpet, Marsalis has come to prefer touring and recording with a small nimble combo, built like a sports car with racing slick tires and a tight suspension. Upon the death of Kenny Kirkland in 1998, Marsalis asked Calderazzo to assume the piano chair in his quartet, and the two have since forged a close musical and personal relationship which flows through every on stage interaction. The pair joke like old friends, pulling the audience into a world where music is humour and passion, power and grace.
Marsalis worked a number of the group’s original compositions into the program, from bassist Eric Revis’s pounding and proggy tune “Sphere” to Calderazzo’s heartbreaking and astounding solo improv on his own song “Hope”, both released on BMQ albums and sure to be permanently lodged in my CD player this week. Calderazzo showed himself to be every bit the musician and showman as Marsalis; as his talents overflowed from the MFC’s Steinway it became clear why the saxophonist felt comfortable frequently turning the concert over to his accompanist. Indeed, all three members play with the confidence of friends and compatriots who communicate almost telepathically.
Joining the Quartet in 2009 was yet another prodigy, 18 year old Philadelphia native Justin Faulkner taking over for founding drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts. Channeling the young energy of teen jazz drumming sensations Tony Williams and Dennis Chambers, Faulkner is a polyrhythmic monster whose driving right hand work on the ride cymbal pushed the quartet to the outer reaches of space on “52nd Street” and “Sphere”, but also wrapped delicate swaths of brush work around Gershwin’s “Love is Here to Stay”. Calderazzo was in fine form on the ballads, trading heartfelt leads with Marsalis on soprano sax and taking his extended solos from whisper quiet melodies to cascades of chords.
The band closed the night with a swinging encore of WC Handy’s 1914 classic “St Louis Blues”, taking the concert right back to the beginning of a genre which they continue to grow with every performance.