The blues ain't nothin' but a botheration of the mind - O. Spann


A New Yorker by birth and temperament, I've lived in the Boston area for almost 30 years. I work as a computer journalist, play as a musician, avid music listener, woodworker and hoops junkie.


SEPTEMBER 24, 2009 8:29PM

Branford Marsalis: More than going through changes

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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.

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Excerpt from The Beatitudes: A Pinch and Scrimp Adventure by Lyn LeJeune, in both Kindle and book. A book for and about New Orleans (proceeds go to The New Orleans Public Library Foundation)

She had grown up in a New Orleans housing project shamefully named Desire. Desire had been constructed in an isolated area northwest of greater New Orleans, bordered by industrial canals and railroad tracks. Pinch often recounted her nights as a young child lying on the floor under a matted blanket listening to gunshots in the night. Desire had been built in the late 40s over the Hideaway Club where Fats Domino had played his first gigs. Pinch swore she could hear Fats sing “My Blue Heaven” just for her. As Pinch’s childhood tumbled forward, she learned survival skills. By the age of twelve, she had tried just about every street drug going and stole to keep from going hungry, acquiring the nickname Pinch. She would have been doomed to a child’s death but for the help of an aged aunt. Pinch pulled herself up, finished high school, and made it through college by working sometimes two shifts as a housekeeper in seedy hotels that bordered the Ninth Ward. A city auditor once asked her why she hadn’t worked in the Lafayette Square District or the famous 625 St. Charles suites. “You could have paid for a Ph.D. with the tips alone.” And she replied: “Well, I guess ‘dis sista just feeling mo’ secure wid da brothers. Ozanam Inn be my place, homeless peoples and all.” Then she rubbed his arm. The poor guy broke out in a sweat, brushed his thinning hair back with an aged-spotted trembling hand, and looked at me for intervention. Later I asked Pinch why she’d stuck it to the auditor; she shrugged her shoulders and replied: “I guess just every once and a while I have to remind myself where I come from. Pride has many forms, love.” Pinch had overcome. She was the bravest person I ever knew.

Elijah Rising