Publication: Mercury News
Author: Richard Scheinin
During three hours of music Monday in Santa Cruz, the Branford Marsalis Quartet managed in its way to cover much of the history of jazz. We’re talking close to 100 years of music that this very cocky band, one of the best, touched on, but without giving a history lesson. As Marsalis likes to say, his group knows how to balance tradition and modernity, in all its extremities, like few others.
But for anyone who has followed the tenor saxophonist over the past couple decades, that’s not news. And there was news Monday at the Kuumbwa Jazz Center: Marsalis’s longtime drummer, Jeff “Tain” Watts, couldn’t make the current tour. So Marsalis brought along a replacement, an 18-year-old from Philadelphia named Justin Faulkner.
As the night’s first set began, Marsalis asked Faulkner to set the tempo for the opening tune, “Mr. JJ,” composed by Watts. For years, it’s been one of the band’s hard-core burnout tunes — the Coltrane whirlwind, essentially, merged with a new generation’s ultra-aggressive, blowtorch virtuosity. Macho-osity. Faulkner started to count it off, and Marsalis, laughing, went, “No, no, no.” He wanted it a lot faster.
“Can he play?” a guy in the fourth row asked out loud.
Let’s just say that about 15 minutes later, this lanky, 16-limbed percussion monster had about 200 people sitting there in the sold-out club with their jaws dropped. It was, not to overstate things, staggering.
Burnout mode is one of the specialties of this band, whose other members are pianist Joey Calderazzo and bassist Eric Revis. Burnout is about heat, endurance and, again, almost gleefully extreme virtuosity. It’s show-offy, really, but this group gets so deeply into the exercise that it becomes spiritual music with an attitude.
A second specialty of the band is hard swing, as on the night’s second tune, “Think of One” by Thelonious Monk. It was driven by Revis’s meaty bass-walk, with Faulkner dropping little splish-splash bombs and Calderazzo poking in and out with his shaggycarpet asides. On older tunes like this, Marsalis references swing-to-bop players in the Don Byas mode: oblique lines, bluesy hollers, an easy flow of ideas and not too many notes.
A third specialty in recent years, sneaking in via Marsalis’s interest in Keith Jarrett’s ’70s bands, is the free, rubato (with flexible tempo) ballad. Typically, Marsalis switches at this point to soprano, which he plays beautifully. But the group’s floaty improvisations stretch on and on and lack interest, because the tunes themselves aren’t distinguished. Monday, Calderazzo’s “Hope” and “The Last Goodbye” were, sorry, sappy.
But how much can you complain about a group that plays with this much commitment, authority and pleasure? This isn’t some string quartet, nursing internal feuds. The band members like and appreciate each other, joking constantly, even while soloing.
Calderazzo, especially, had a great time nudging and challenging Faulkner. There were moments when the pianist improvised a pure storm of sound — knotty clusters and blurred pointillist barrages, very Cecil Taylor-ish. And Faulkner, intuitively, pushed back with massive waves of percussion. I bet he never played like that in any high school band.
It was sensational. So was the clobbering intensity and control, too, of Marsalis’ “In the Crease” and the humor in his deconstruction of Irving Berlin’s “Cheek to Cheek,” which turned into a Rollins-esque “Freedom Suite” number, with the saxophonist pushing the tempo like crazy while flooding through the chord changes.
As an encore, the band played W.C. Handy’s “St. Louis Blues,” traveling back to the early days of jazz. And back to roots for Marsalis, raised in New Orleans. The whole band dug in: happy, yes; cocky, yes; bluesy, yes. The real thing.