Publication: The Boston Globe
Author: Steve Greenlee
Though center stage belonged to one of jazz’s most heralded saxophonists, all eyes and ears were on the drummer, Justin Faulkner. After two decades with the band, Jeff “Tain’’ Watts - jazz’s most explosive drummer - left the Branford Marsalis Quartet this year to focus on his own projects. His replacement is Faulkner, an 18-year-old who is just starting his secondary education at the Berklee College of Music.
To say Faulkner acquitted himself would be a ridiculous understatement. Watts’s departure left a gaping hole in the quartet; he was the 5,000-horsepower engine that drove the train. Faulkner did not try to be Watts on Wednesday night at the Berklee Performance Center; there was none of the big, booming bombast that is Watts’s stock in trade. Instead Faulkner put one of the most electrifying, dazzling technical displays you’re ever going to see in a jazz ensemble.
He didn’t try to show off in front of his new classmates, either (and his classmates were there, for it seemed half of those in the packed auditorium were Berklee students). The young man showed a stunning maturity by holding back when he could have overpowered bassist Eric Revis and pianist Joey Calderazzo during any of their several rhythm-section showcases. Faulkner saved his aggression for the climaxes of a couple of tunes, where he and Calderazzo drove each other to the brink of chaos. The symbiosis between those two, in particular, was difficult to reconcile with the fact that Faulkner has been in the band for mere months.
Pieces developed slowly and deliberately - the concert, which lasted nearly two hours, featured just eight tunes, and one of them was a bass solo. It wasn’t all hyperactivity, either. Calderazzo’s achingly beautiful ballad “The Blossom of Parting’’ contained minimalist, ruminative passages - a duet between piano and soprano sax to begin, an impressionistic piano solo in the middle. But the heart of the show was a bold take of the bebop chestnut “52nd Street Theme,’’ a tune Marsalis (playing the tenor with abandonment here) claimed the quartet had never played before. That was hard to believe. Either that, or bands ought to workshop new tunes right on stage more often.
One of the more delightful moments arrived at the encore, when the band retook the stage and an audience member shouted “The Peacocks!’’ in an attempt to get the quartet to play that Jimmie Rowles song. Marsalis declared that the band didn’t know the tune, but they proceeded to play 16 bars of it before segueing into the ballad “Hope.’’ It fit perfectly.