Branford Marsalis: back and better than ever

Yes, the Branford Marsalis Quartet, one of the foremost groups in jazz now, is still in fine form. However, one significant development deserves mention: the creation of Branford’s own Marsalis Music label. In a time when many of the major labels are dropping their jazz artists, the formation of Branford’s indie jazz label stands out as a major event in the jazz world. Branford’s brother Wynton, who is arguably the most well-known living jazz musician, was recently dropped from the Columbia Records Label. Young, aspiring jazz musicians and veterans alike are having a difficult time, not that they’ve ever had it that easy, finding ways to get their music out to the public.

It seems fitting that at the moment when Branford is committing himself through his label to fostering new voices in jazz, he is also looking back, paying his respects to the masters who preceded him. Branford’s new album, ‘Footsteps of Our Fathers,’ just recently released this past month, features the quartet’s take on some revered jazz classics.

Branford’s group is one of a select few to tackle John Coltrane’s ‘A Love Supreme’ suite. Considered sacred in the jazz world, ‘A Love Supreme’ presents a distinct challenge to its would-be interpreter. With ‘A Love Supreme,’ Coltrane reached the pinnacle of the modal and spiritual side of his music. As popular and well known as the music is, however, few jazz musicians have chosen to interpret ‘A Love Supreme.’ The Quartet’s rendition of this music then represents a significant achievement. Monday’s show featured one movement from the four-movement suite. Watts opened ‘Pursuance’ with a drum solo that erupted into a blisteringly fast version of the song.

However, the highlight of Monday night’s performance was undoubtedly the medley that preceded the movement from ‘A Love Supreme.’ This medley began with ‘Vodville,’ a tune written by Watts, one of the group’s principal composers and a formidable composer in his own right. Intended to reflect the humorous story of a man’s night at a bar, ‘Vodville’ was a dynamic composition that alternately built up and subsided in intensity. The group then proceeded directly into one of Branford’s earlier compositions, ’16th Street Baptist Church.’ The groove laid down by the band during this tune had everyone in the audience bobbing their heads and tapping their feet.

Also of note were two other compositions the Quartet plays on their new album, ‘Giggin’ by Ornette Coleman and ‘Concorde’ by John Lewis, of Modern Jazz Quartet fame. Both featured strong solos by Marsalis and Calderazzo.

And while the music was intense and driving, it was clear that the four players were also having fun with each other up on stage. Branford joked before the group went into ‘Concorde’: “We’ve been playing this tune for a year now, and these guys still need the music.” Calderazzo then decided he would play with his eyes closed, and Branford proceeded to rearrange all the music on Eric Revis’s stand. It’s always nice to see a group that can joke around while at the same time playing complex, challenging music.

Northampton was the first stop on the band’s tour for the new album. The recent release of Tain’s new album, ‘Bar Talk,’ also deserves mention, as the group on Monday played several tunes from that album. Tain is a monster drummer, hands down. In addition to his talent as a player, his compositional skills set him apart from other drummers. He is a true all-around musician. With the likes of these players, Branford’s Quartet is poised to continue to impress audiences with its powerful jazz statements.