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Branford Marsalis keeps things current

By Bill Beuttler (Boston Globe, December 29, 2003)

CAMBRIDGE — When Branford Marsalis and his quartet played their first set together in two months on Friday night at the Regattabar, they took a pass on promoting their most recent CD, the exuberant glance at jazz's past, "Romare Bearden Revealed." Instead, they focused on material that was more their own thing and present-tense — and slew the room just as effectively.

First up was Jeff "Tain" Watts's "Mr. JJ," an up-tempo tribute to the drummer's dog from Watts's much-praised CD from 2002, "Bar Talk." Watts and Marsalis seem to have been collaborating forever. They were Berklee classmates in 1980, bandmates in Branford's brother Wynton's early '80s quintet, in "The Tonight Show" band when Branford was directing it, and in every Branford-led jazz combo to date.

On Friday night, the band showed why. Watts's forceful timekeeping and fierce accents propelled the music as much as did Marsalis's stellar work on tenor and soprano saxophones. And that's not to mention his compositional contributions, or his subtler rhythmic underpinning on a pair of ballads.

The first of these was "Lucky's Lament," a pretty Marsalis-penned doff of the soprano to the underappreciated saxophonist Lucky Thompson. It was written for a forthcoming quartet disc of "melancholy ballads," and it was the second song played Friday.

Marsalis switched back to his tenor sax for "Ling's Lope," another fast-paced piece by Watts. The band casually swung its way through the tune's trickily convoluted melody, and bassist Eric Revis — following Marsalis and pianist Joey Calderazzo — made good use of his only solo in the set before Watts wrapped things up with a deft solo of his own.

It was then that Marsalis talked a bit about that melancholy album in the works. Anyone above the age of 35, he asserted, knows that "life is not sweet or sour — it's bittersweet."

Which is why the quartet had set about composing pieces like "Lucky's Lament," and scouring jazz's obscurer corners for sadness-tinged ballads like what came next: Nat King Cole's "Dinner For One Please, James." Marsalis blew a charming interpretation on his tenor, supported by nice brushwork by Watts.

The set's most adventuresome number was Marsalis's free-form composition "Lykief," a play on the words "like Keith" and an obvious homage to Keith Jarrett.

The tune's melody and rhythmic variations — at one point Watts clanged his cowbell twice and launched a few bars of calypso — were reminiscent of Jarrett's '70s quartets with the saxophonists Dewey Redman and Jan Garbarek, and Calderazzo's extended Jarrett-esque solo made it clear that Marsalis and Watts have found a worthy successor to their longtime pianist compatriot, the late Kenny Kirkland.

Marsalis shone on this one too, leading off with a long soprano solo at his most pyrotechnic daring.

A jaunty rendition of the Billie Holiday-associated standard "Miss Brown To You" followed as an encore.

© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company
© Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company
© Bill Beuttler