Author: J Hunter
Date: February 3, 2012
I hadn’t known this was an issue until it was pointed out to me by a musician whose opinion (and playing) I deeply respect. Essentially, it boils down to a very simple question: What is the deal with Branford Marsalis when he plays tenor saxophone? When Marsalis plays soprano sax, he is the epitome of precision and expression; however, when he plays tenor he just… well… honks. I closely observed this situation over two sets at Proctors last Friday night. (Well, one-and-a-half sets, if we’re going to be accurate.)
The show was split up between an opening series of duets between Branford and pianist Joey Calderazzo, and a full-band set with bassist Eric Revis and drummer Justin Faulkner. The duets came from “Songs of Mirth & Melancholy” (Marsalis Music, 2011), which Marsalis and Calderazzo recorded after seeing the potential of such a disc during an impromptu duo show at the Newport Jazz Festival. Although we only heard four tunes before the pair declared an intermission, that relatively short performance displayed the contrast between the thrilling intimacy of the Melancholy material and the full-bore nastiness of the Branford Quartet. It also displayed the skin-tight chemistry Marsalis and Calderazzo share; he’s got that with all his band members, but the relationship between leader and pianist was really under the microscope in this no-frills (and no-safety-net) setting.
After a quick reminiscence by Marsalis on the last time he played Proctors (eight years ago, when the Marsalis Family was on tour), the duo slipped into “La Valse Kendall,” a Calderazzo original that is equal parts classical and jazz, and could make you cry uncontrollably when heard at the right moment. Marsalis’ soprano went right for your soul and did its best to tear the sucker out by the roots, while Calderazzo’s immaculate precision added a real sense of occasion to the piece. Then they switched to Calderazzo’s stride-rich “One Way,” and Marsalis began the first series of honking sounds on tenor. Okay, he wasn’t REALLY honking; what he played was not only damn good, it was entirely appropriate to the piece and the era it recalled. That said, the difference between Marsalis’ soprano on “Valse” (and on Marsalis’ equally sorrowful “The Bard Lachrymose”) and his tenor work on “One” (and the chaotic set-closer “Bri’s Dance”) was the difference between performing opthalmic surgery with a laser and attempting the same procedure with a rusty chainsaw.
If I’m honest, I could see the musician’s point of view. When placed side-by-side, it’s kind of hard to believe the two sounds come from the same musician – that is, unless you’re a foaming Branford fan like myself. He’s my favorite Marsalis brother, and in my eyes, he has done no wrong, ever. But putting that undeniable bias aside, you have to see these saxophones in relation to Marsalis’ brain: The soprano represents the left (or intellectual) side of Marsalis’ brain, obsessed with depth and detail to the point where you can now instantly tell when you’re hearing Branford play soprano. The tenor, on the other hand, goes to the right side of the brain, where emotion (and, by extension, fun) hangs its hat. Sure, John Coltrane and Dewey Redman played tenor, but so did Junior Walker and Cannonball Adderley, and when Marsalis picks up the instrument, he gets his ya-ya’s out in the best way possible – particularly when he has his full band behind him.
If you saw the Branford Quartet set fire to the Albany Riverfront Jazz Festival a few years ago, you know what kind of unbridled mayhem the band can cause when it’s got the wind at its back. You also know that the the line-up is different now, thanks to the arrival of Faulkner. The 20-year-old drummer has replaced longtime Branford co-conspirator Jeff “Tain” Watts, and it’s not an overstatement to say Faulkner’s in roughly the same position Jack DeJohnette was when he was chosen to replace some guy named Tony Williams. Unlike DeJohnette (who had to put up with shouts of “Where’s Tony?” for the first part of his career with Miles Davis), Faulkner was given a rousing welcome as the band came out of the wings. He doffed his jacket and got behind his kit as Calderazzo and Revis continued to playfully bust on each other – something they’d been doing since the quartet walked onstage. Then Branford introduced a new Calderazzo tune called “The Mighty Sword,” and we were off to the races.
The opening figure was fairly complex, but the band had it wrapped round their collective little finger in about half a second. Marsalis stuck to the melody line while his partners went nuts behind him, and then Branford stepped back into the darkness and Calderazzo took off like a bat out of hell. Disciplined and focused in the duo set, Calderazzo still displayed the technical prowess we’d seen earlier as he put his pedal to the metal on this soaring solo. Even bigger than the solo was Faulkner’s dynamic fills, which showcased the young man’s epic abilities as an improviser and as an acrobat. Faulkner can keep it quiet, too, as we saw on Revis’ bossa “Myisthra” and Calderazzo’s evocative “As Summer into Autumn.” But even though everything Faulkner played was both elegant and appropriate, his tortured body language said he really, really, REALLY wanted to beat the crap out of his drum kit. Revis remains one of the most interesting bassists never to develop his own solo career, and he laid perfect foundations when he wasn’t contributing lyrical solos and urging Faulkner to take it even higher.
“We goin’ Old School now,” Marsalis informed us in the intro to the Sidney Bechet-inspired encore “Treat it Gentle”: The sweet sound took us to Bechet-era NOLA, but the soprano sax was so very much Branford. All the music in the second set will be on the quartet’s forthcoming disc, and the performances – both individually and collectively – told longtime Branford Quartet fans that Tain may be gone, but everything’s gonna be all right.