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Publication: Democrat and Chonicle
Author: Jeff Spevak
Jazz is all about winging it, Branford Marsalis suggested early on. And since Jeff “Tain” Watts was still winging his way to Rochester, Marsalis’ unexpectedly slimmed-down quartet had to improvise in unusual ways Sunday evening at the Eastman Theatre.
[MARSALIS MUSIC CORRECTION: This article states that Jeff “Tain” Watts was “still winging his way to Rochester,” but it was actually the newest member of the quartet, drummer Justin Faulkner, who did not make the performance.]
Watts’ drum kit made it, even if he didn’t, and sat onstage quietly for most of the night. Bassist Eric Revis did make it, but his bass didn’t. He had to borrow one from Eastman School of Music professor and local jazz player Jeff Campbell. And Marsalis seemed to have been hit by Bad Reed Fever, several times strolling to the back of the stage, and even offstage once, in search of reeds that could hit the notes he was searching for.
“It’s complete mayhem up here,” Marsalis confessed at one point. “Guys starting off in different keys….” He shook his head in mock dismay. But you know what? Mayhem is good. What Sunday’s show for about 1,200 people lacked in precision, it more than made up for with a loose-limbed coolness for a night of downright accessible jazz in this benefit for the Lifetime Assistance Foundation, which provides support for programs and services to area citizens with developmental disabilities and their families.
“These are all of the songs we should have played at Berklee when we went there, but didn’t,” Marsalis said as the band — first a duo, then a trio, then a quartet after Marsalis delighted the crowd by recruiting a drummer from the audience — eased its way through a set list that he was making up as the night rolled on. The laughs came as easy as the melodies to what he referred to as this “school boy” lineup of songs.
That started with the show-opening Irving Berlin classic “Dancing Cheek to Cheek,” with the fluttering of Marsalis’ tenor sax and Joey Calderazzo’s piano riffing off of that incurably familiar tune in the jazzman’s way of variations on a theme, and delivering it safely beyond the campy.
A couple of Calderazzo compositions, including “Hope,” with Marsalis providing a particularly lonely soprano sax, broke up the parade of familiar chestnuts. They visited Hoagy Carmichael’s “Stardust,” Ray Noble’s “Cherokee,” “When the Saints Go Marching In” (a tribute to Marsalis’ home town New Orleans Saints’ win over the New York Giants earlier in the day), a throwaway riff from the My Three Sons theme song and a few tougher nuts, such as Thelonious Monk’s “Rhythm-A-Ning.”
As for the newly renovated Eastman Theatre, which still has that new-car smell, “It sounds very good,” Marsalis said. “So we’re not going to be using the mikes very much.” Of course, the microphones were hard to avoid, but on a few occasions he would drift away from them enough to leave his sax notes drifting and blowing delightfully around the venue like autumn leaves.
With Watts still not in the house about 70 minutes into the show, Marsalis called for any volunteer drummers to step in behind the kit. No one appeared, so Marsalis decided to do it himself on Duke Ellington’s “It Don’t Mean a Thing.” As talented as the three-time Grammy winner is, and as far-reaching as the Marsalis family’s skills can be, drumming isn’t in Branford’s tool kit. Midway through the song, after he’d lost his way a couple of times, a volunteer finally appeared. Eric Schmitz, a 32-year-old music teacher at State University College at Oswego, who’d done his masters degree work at Eastman, sprinted onstage midway though the song, relieved Marsalis of the sticks, and delighted the crowd for the next half hour as he soloed and winged it in the most enjoyable way imaginable.