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Branford Marsalis and ALL that Jazz

March 1, 2013

In the arts, beauty — and sometimes even the mere existence of a genre or form — may be in the eye (or ear) of the beholder. This modified axiom is never more evident than when it comes to jazz.

I once had the opportunity to interview vocalist Dianne Reeves and asked what she thought about naysayers who claimed jazz was a dying art form. She paused for a moment, then said, “Well, they’re just not listening to the right people.”

Madison got a hefty dose of the right people Thursday when the Branford Marsalis Quartet took the stage at Overture Hall. Jazz, as a rule, has a rabid, but small following, so it was very encouraging to see more than 1,600 seats filled in Overture Hall, a sign that the art form is anything but dying.

The band’s 100-minute set strayed into a range of areas, from inventive, nonlinear progressions to jazz standards and even a little Dixieland, an homage to Marsalis’ New Orleans upbringing. For the serious musician, jazz provides a wealth of fascinating musical structures and progressions that mix musical education with freeform improvisation. For the rest of us … well, it simply has the power to carry us to the stratosphere and back again.

With Marsalis on reeds, Joey Calderazzo on piano and Eric Revis on bass, the quartet’s core group provided a smooth synthesis of rhythms and melodies. Drummer Justin Faulkner, who replaced longtime Marsalis sideman Jeff “Tain” Watts in 2009, brings an unbridled energy to his kit that takes tunes both familiar and not well beyond the downbeat.

The group drew heavily on its August 2012 recording Four MFs Playin’ Tunes, a blend of originals and covers that demonstrated an incredible range of skills. Interspersed were stories and anecdotes about an encounter with Stan Getz and the inevitable travel woes musicians face on the road, but none of it distracted from the music.

The band wailed through a cover of Thelonius Monk’s “Teo” and stepped lightly amid the notes of George Gershwin’s “Our Love is Here to Stay.” The evening’s best were original compositions such as Marsalis’ musically complex “In the Crease” and Calderazzo’s lyrically beautiful “As Summer into Autumn Slips.” The pair together comprised the final part of the regular concert, and the band clearly had saved the best for last.

But not quite. The musicians regrouped for an extended encore version of “Tiger Rag” that Marsalis told us was actually a blend of three French gavottes that were popular as dance tunes in early 20th Century New Orleans. “Jelly Roll Morton claimed to have written the song, but Jelly Roll claimed to have written just about everything,” Marsalis said.

Regardless of its history, the Branford Marsalis Quartet had a grand time with their closing number, proving that their love for jazz — like ours — is here to stay.

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