There are few, if any, world-renowned artists scheduled to play on one of the many local performance series who can drive from their home to the gig, but Durham resident Branford Marsalis did just that. He and the three other musicians who make up the Branford Marsalis Quartet played the first of a two-night stand at Duke University's Reynolds Auditorium and it was packed nearly as tight as a rush hour subway car. The events are under the auspices of Duke Performances.
For those of you not familiar with Branford, or, worse yet, the family name Marsalis, then it's time to buy a CD, watch a movie and pay attention to the soundtrack, watch TV, learn about jazz education and philanthropic activities…and on and on. His two page biographical "sketch" in the program (perhaps a bit of that room could have been shared with members of his quartet), pales in comparison to experiencing this dynamic musician in person.
Like most jazz concerts presented around here, there is no warm-up act and no intermission. From "showbiz" skills honed as music director for The Tonight Show with Jay Leno in the early 90s, Marsalis extends his magnificent musicianship to that of funny, swaggering host who puts everyone at ease. They all came out and launched into "Twister," a composition by pianist Joey Calderazzo. This set the pattern for the evening as a showcase of original works by members of the quartet, although Duke Performances' publications and other ads promised "... two nights of refreshed standards and classic originals...." Complementing Calderazzo on piano and Marsalis alternating soprano and tenor saxophones, is Eric Revis on bass and Justin Faulkner, a drummer so phenomenal that although you are hearing and seeing him perform, you still can't believe that one person is playing as he does. This entire quartet is participating in a residency at North Carolina Central University.*
The only piece played not written by one of the band members was a supercharged rendition of Thelonious Monk's "Teo." At times the energy level was so overpowering that you felt as if an irresistible force was meeting an immovable object and something had to give. The fact that nothing "gave" is credited to the sound technicians – unfortunately un-credited in the program. The balance, volume and retention of the acoustic qualities of all four players and their instruments were marvels to hear.
After about half an hour of blistering playing and unabashed virtuosity, the brakes were put on for what to me was the highlight of the evening. Marsalis told us that he had spent a lot of time last year listening to recordings of Sidney Bechet, the great clarinetist who along with Louis Armstrong can be said to have laid the foundation of Jazz. Marsalis wrote "Treat it Gentle" as an homage and it was a beautiful New Orleans style tune that reminded us where it all began.
Rather than ending in a wave of brimstone and fire, just Marsalis and Calderazzo came back for an encore to perform the pianist's composition that was in memory of tenor saxophonist Michael Brecker, who had died exactly five years ago. Plaintive and somewhat impressionistic, this was an extended and impressive work that could – and should – become a staple of recitals.
This program will be repeated 1/14. For details, see the sidebar.
*We are grateful to Aaron Greenwald of Duke Performances for the following clarification and update of info contained in the program: Branford Marsalis and Joey Calderazzo are artists-in-residence with NCCU's Jazz Program; they have held these positions on an ongoing basis for half a decade. Neither Eric Revis nor Justin Faulkner is at NCCU. The sound engineer, with whom Branford Marsalis has worked for several decades, is Rob Griffin.