Publication: Seattle Times
Author: Hugo Kugiya
Perhaps the moment that said the most about saxophonist Branford Marsalis, whose quartet began a four-night run Thursday at Jazz Alley, was the moment he left the stage, disappeared and left the spotlight to his young drummer Justin Faulkner, who delivered an inspired, disciplined solo over the Thelonius Monk tune “Rhythm-a-Ning.”
Even among the unsuspecting in the audience, Faulkner looked surprisingly young, a suspicion confirmed when Marsalis announced Faulkner turned 18 that day. The addition to the group of Faulkner, whom Marsalis discovered last year in Philadelphia while leading a jazz tutorial, is very telling of Marsalis’ priorities these days.
Bringing jazz into the classroom with his “Marsalis Jams” program and nurturing young, promising talent — all while leading a quartet that aspires to be a standard-bearer of modern, straight-ahead jazz — is an ambitious agenda, but Marsalis seems to have accomplished that.
The young Faulkner is a substitute for the quartet’s regular drummer, Jeff “Tain” Watts. The quartet, which also includes pianist Joey Calderazzo and bassist Eric Revis, has been together a remarkable 10 years and the work shows.
It is a quartet that seems to trust, enjoy and understand one another, playing new forms of classic material and classic forms of new material. Instead of innovating by spreading outward in the genre, Marsalis seems to have chosen to mine it deeper. Playing largely from the group’s new album, “Metamorphosen” (out just this week), the quartet showed its penchant for quirky rhythmic hooks, and extremes of tempo, ballads that are so slow they seem to lack a beat at all.
Marsalis, who alternated between tenor and soprano sax, himself showed a remarkable ability to become seemingly invisible, disappearing from the stage after his solos, which tended to be relatively short, and reappearing suddenly. His quartet is truly a quartet and certainly not a showcase for its leader.
Marsalis, 47, was as much an onstage producer as bandleader, sometimes shouting direction into Faulkner’s ear during the performance. Otherwise, the group could just as easily have been called the Eric Revis quartet or the Joey Calderazzo quartet.
It’s part of a long shift out of the early part of his career spent as a celebrity of sorts, a sideman to the rock star Sting, the leader of “The Tonight Show” band in the 1990s, and of course, older brother to Wynton Marsalis. Branford lives in the relative quiet of North Carolina and devotes most of his energy to jazz education and social causes like the rebuilding of his hometown New Orleans.
For all the talk that is being devoted to the “new thing” in jazz, Marsalis’ performance was a refreshing and instructive reminder that in many ways the future lies in the past (Marsalis is a devout listener to European classical music). As an encore, the group performed the Duke Ellington classic, “It Don’t Mean a Thing,” a tune so ubiquitous it appears in television jingles. Yet, from the quartet the song sounded fresh and lean. The trick, the group seems to understand, is to know when to not try too hard.