By Don Heckman
Northridge, CA. I couldn’t help but wonder, Saturday night at the Valley Performing Arts Center, whether the Branford Marsalis Quartet was anticipating the hard driving energies of Sunday’s NFL Super Bowl game. Playing at a peak level of intensity, much of what they offered could have served as the sound track for some of the more violent encounters between the Baltimore Ravens and the San Francisco Forty-Niners. (Which the Niners lost because the refs failed – in the final plays — to call an obvious pass interference by the Ravens.)
Actually, it’s unlikely that the Super Bowl was what NEA Jazz Master Marsalis had in mind. More probable, I suspect, was a desire to showcase the newest member of the quartet, Justin Faulkner, who is replacing Marsalis’ long time drumming partner, Jeff “Tain” Watts. And he did so by giving Faulkner, barely into his twenties, what seemed to be carte-blanche to drive his playing with several high voltage elements – including loudness, busyness and repetitiveness.
Faulkner was surely drawn in this direction by an awareness of Watts’ electrifying drumming – as well, no doubt, by the memorable percussive powers of the late Tony Williams and Elvin Jones, who have had significant impacts upon generations of young drummers.
Marsalis led the way by revealing eclectic patterns in his own playing, on both soprano and tenor saxophones. At 52, he has been shaping a unique vision of jazz since the ‘80s, applying it to genres reaching from rock, rap, jazz, classical, theatrical and beyond.
Much of that versatility was on full display in a program ranging from bassist Eric Revis’ Monk-like “Brews” and pianist Joey Calderazzo’s lyrical ballad, “As Summer Into Autumn Slips,” to several displays of free-style improvising over hypnotic ostinato rhythm section patterns. Topping it off, Marsalis probed the depths of his New Orleans roots with a delightful romp through the Original Dixeland Jass Band’s “Tiger Rag.”
At its best, the program underscored Marsalis’ musical identity as one of the most inventive players of his generation (and beyond). There were times – perhaps a few too many – when his versatility surfaced in the over-the-top extrovertiveness of a bar-walking blues saxophonist. Fortunately, he more often allowed the rich creative perspectives of his best playing to take precedence, guiding his quartet – along with Faulkner — into a compelling musical evening.