One doesn’t normally associate the dramatics and dynamics of a jazz artist, especially one as heralded as Branford Marsalis, with a stage move. But Tuesday night at the EKU Center for the Arts in Richmond, the multi-Grammy winning saxophonist and bandleader came up with one, whether he realized it or not, that was literally in step with the cool and wildly adventurous music conjured by his quartet.
In short, after completing a solo on soprano or tenor sax, he did an about-face and walked to the back of the bandstand. Admittedly, that’s been a Marsalis performance trademark for decades. But last night, with the quartet members situated in such close proximity to one another on a huge, starkly lit stage, Marsalis’ exits gave the illusion of a disappearing act into darkness.
That was a telling move to boot, as every completed Marsalis solo simply shifted the focus to the quartet’s other three titan members: pianist Joey Calderazzo, bassist Eric Revis and drummer Jason Faulkner.
For example, Calderazzo’s show-opening The Mighty Sword (one of five compositions during the 95 minute concert pulled from the Marsalis Quartet’s new Four MFs Playin’ Tunes album) used a piano intro rich in Thelonious Monk-style fancy as a set-up to a darting soprano run by Marsalis. Then the saxophonist vanished, leaving the remaining trio to engage in a series of rugged rhythmic skirmishes before closing ranks around Marsalis, who strolled back out of the darkness at tune’s end as casually as he had entered it.
Such playfulness was magnified when the group took on Monk music directly with a cover of the jazz legend’s Teo that balanced Calderazzo’s meaty, modal playing with Marsalis’ tenor lead.
But the killer was a second Calderazzo tune, the sumptuous ballad As Summer into Autumn Slips. Performed as a 20-minute suite of sorts, the piece began with ensemble exchanges that drifted between the atmospheric and the freely improvisational, with soprano sax playing off ripples of piano and percussion. Marsalis eventually did his disappearing act again, only to reappear for a coda that shifted the focus entirely to a furious solo by Faulkner. The tune then subsided to a simple, metronomic bass riff from Revis.
An encore of Tiger Rag flipped on the New Orleans party lights. It was great fun. But the concert’s truly enticing moments came when Marsalis disappeared into the darker recesses of his quartet’s remarkable repertoire.