Publication: Times Online
Author: John Bungey
In the small town of Coutances (pop. 9,000), deep in the heart of rural Normandy, 1,400 people are packed into the local sports hall. There are grannies, young couples, a good few beards — but not much beard-stroking. This may be a night of hardcore jazz — the Marsalis quartet’s last date before they come to Britain — but this is no niche audience. A few miles beyond the Channel, at the charming Jazz sous les Pommiers festival, it seems that high-end saxophone playing has broad appeal.
The group hares out of the traps with the Return of the Jitney Man, Branford Marsalis summoning intense flurries of notes from his tenor sax, free-flowing yet tightly focused. It’s hard, though, to keep eyes from the drummer. He’s an 18-year-old high school major called Justin Faulkner, recruited to replace Jeff “Tain” Watts, now leading his own band. Faulkner is a force of nature, a rhythm machine of such facility that more seasoned drummers must look on him and suddenly feel very old. He plays all over the kit, constantly shifts patterns, but the pulse never falters.
The pianist, Joey Calderazzo, comes into his own on the first of the night’s two slow songs. For all its febrile energy, the band has a liking for gentle melancholy too. Calderazzo’s solo on The Blossom of Parting — another tune from this year’s Metamorphosen album — is full of classical cadences and slowly builds to a heart-wrenching climax before Marsalis takes over on soprano saxophone.
The band doesn’t always make it easy. Abe Vigoda is full of the sharp edges of the classical avant-garde, and I’ve never quite got the Thelonious Monk tribute, Sphere — why not just play a Monk tune? But the band, bar the drummer, have been playing together for almost a decade and possess collective powers greater than the sum of the parts. While some modern jazz players have retreated into the past and others have veered into Radiohead covers, the Marsalis band have merely continued to hone their art — aware of jazz’s history but not enslaved by it. Superbe,” says the man next to me as he rises for the closing ovation. He’s not wrong.