in performance: the branford marsalis quartet

branford marsalis

Some artists have a knack for song titles. Others, like the members of the Branford Marsalis Quartet, prefer taking them for test drives first and then hammering them into shape, just as they would with the actual composition.

Last night, before a full house at the Grand Theatre, Marsalis tried out a few new titles during a set made up largely of works to be featured on an upcoming quartet recording. The set-opening The Mighty Sword, a rugged bit of percussive swing that had pianist/composer Joey Calderazzo feeding off the youthful drive of drummer Jason Faulkner (and vice versa), was initially titled Twister. Marsalis said bassist Eric Revis vetoed that name.

Similarly, the title to the saxophonist’s own Whiplash didn’t seem to thrill the band, even though the music obviously did. It started as a lean, piano-less trio romp that embraced the speed and danger element of a thrill park ride before Calderazzo re-entered. Faulkner brought the tune home with a solo fortified by the tireless stamina of an Olympian.

But the kicker seemed to be a new Calderazzo ballad, which Marsalis said had been newly dubbed (as of last evening) with the Emily Dickinson-inspired title As Summer Into Autumn Slips. It was a lovely ensemble excursion set into play by Calderazzo’s plaintive introduction. But the autumn spirits eventually gave way to a tempest as the piece beautifully built to an ensemble boil with Marsalis’ soprano sax lead exhibiting Coltrane-ish intensity. The title, in this case, may just turn out to be a keeper.

Marsalis and Calderazzo served as the evening’s opening act, as well. The two kicked off the performance with a 45 minute set of duet compositions from their recent Songs of Mirth and Melancholy album. This time, the title said it all. The set featured four compositions that shifted radically from light impressionistic contemplations to joyride tunes full of daredevil rhythmic turns.

At its best, these two extremes meshed into a fascinating medley of Marsalis’ The Bard Lachrymose, which sported lovely exchanges between piano and soprano, and Calderazzo’s far more devilish Bri’s Dance. The latter was a wildly animated bop breakdown that effectively hotwired the performance’s playful pace and temperament.

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