Although Branford Marsalis has performed on somewhat of a regular, biennial basis in Durham or Chapel HIll, it still feels like a stroke of good luck to witness his musical mastery onstage. Perhaps there was a lot of luck involved this year, because this Duke Performances concert was the first time that the current Branford Marsalis Quartet has graced the stage in its entirety at Duke University. The Quartet today has been intact since 2009, with Marsalis' long-time collaborator and fellow Durham resident Joey Calderazzo on the keys, Eric Revis on bass, and Justin Faulkner on drums.
It goes without saying that, for the most part, jazz is best experienced live rather than with a recording. Of course, the large collection of the Branford Marsalis Quartet's recorded music is highly lauded and Grammy-nominated. However, their visceral, heart-pounding musical textures and easy camaraderie simply must be witnessed in person. As the Quartet proved with their first song, one could not turn the volume down here.
Revis' aptly named "Dance of the Evil Toys" opens by setting an ametrical, disorienting beat that quickly rises to feverish tempo and volume – an unabashed explosion and clear demonstration of technical prowess. With this song as well as others, the Quartet introduced their unique version of jazz that was so intensely physical, it left the audience out of breath too. Clearly, here were four musicians performing with such effortlessness that they could use their musical expression freely and wildly. How many pianists (jazz or otherwise) have you seen play with their forearm up and down the keys, or how many drummers have you seen nearly jump out of their seat while playing? That's Calderazzo and Faulkner, in just one song.
Another aspect of the Branford Marsalis Quartet that cannot be overstated is the humor and playfulness that veins through their performances. Shown particularly in a sultry rendition of the pre-1940 classic "Swanee," laughter and shared jokes made the tangential exploration of the tune even more memorable. Marsalis, on his signature soprano sax, innovated a truly epic diversion from the original melody. Communication among the four was also paramount in Andrew Hill's "Snake Hip Waltz," a free, experimental piece with a melody much like a train-of-thought. With Marsalis in the melodic lead, the group seemed to latch on to an idea, then keep meandering and spinning along together.
This highly diversified and memorable performance ended with an encore, thankfully. For "It Don't Mean a Thing," Calderazzo brought out a special guest – actually his toddler-age son, Logan, who sat on his lap and even plunked a few keys while the Quartet played. Truthfully, it was pretty adorable. Who knows? Maybe this audience had just seen the next generation of the Branford Marsalis Quartet.