Branford Marsalis released an album earlier this year called Metamorphosen, German for metamorphosis. Jazz is often about change and changes, the chords that make up the harmonic structure of the tune. Too often, it can be about getting through the changes at any price -- sometimes at the expense of feeling or genuine communication between the musicians and between the musicians and the audience.
The Branford Marsalis Quartet was on the bandstand last night at Berklee College of Music in Boston and they more than put to rest any of those fears. They kicked booty.
What was so gluteus maximizing about it?
Let's start with a wonderful intermingling of past present and future. The set and the album both would meet anybody's standard for modern and contemporary. We're not talking standards, we're not talking pre-digested for non-jazz listeners, or those jazz fans who prefer familiar. OK, it's not totally free (although there was some of that). Don't toss your Albert Ayler records for this one.
But the way that Marsalis can make you think you're listening to the 21st century version of (you name it) New Orleans second line (or even fife and drum), New Orleans blues (think St. James Infirmary), '40s NY bebop, or 70s Miles funk and still be original and fresh, is nothing short of impressive.
Second, the band is funky as hell. Syncopated all day long. Improvisations not just on melody and harmony, but on rhythm, too. Brilliant flurries of back and forth between pianist Joey Calderazzo and sit-in drummer whose name I didn't catch (a current Berklee student; Tain Watts on the record). When they want to, building a song around a groove, working it.
Third, a sense of adventure. Marsalis apparently heard a bootleg of Sonny Rollins doing Bird's 52nd Street Theme during the day and the band played it live without rehearsal. That's rather like a theater company improvising Shakespeare. Calderazzo played Monk to Branford's Bird, and the audience got a treat.
Fourth, a willingness to take risks. In some songs, there were choruses where no one was soloing over everyone else comping. Maybe Marsalis would state and theme and get a bounce back from Calderazzo and take it from there. Other pairings were tried. It never failed and sometimes it soared.
Fifth, beauty and pace. Melodies were heartfelt. These guys can play at a million miles an hour and sometimes did. But sometimes they played at slow tempos, letting the beauty just ooze out and sink in to your brain.
Joey C. is a monster on piano. I saw him, probably more than a decade ago, with Michael Brecker and loved him then. That Brecker group was totally different, but likewise had a diverse book, and he also mastered that. Count me a fan and a believer that he is a very underrated or at least under appreciated keyboard player.
Eric Revus acquitted himself very well on bass, too. The drummer whose name I don't know did a great job, if not quite in the league of the rest of the group. But he showed long flashes of brilliance and I imagine I will eventually hear him again and learn his name.
Seeing ex-Berklee cats at Berklee is always fun. They engage with the students, sh0w off for the teachers and generally make the best of the great acoustics there.