Branford Marsalis Quartet Muster Technical Muscle With Post-Bop Masterclass At London's Barbican Hall

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Bookended by a short opening solo piano set from Nikki Yeoh and an encore where the band was joined by UK pianist Julian Joseph, this concert was, as John Cumming from Serious suggested in his opening remarks, a chance to hear what is possibly the leading acoustic jazz quartet in the world today. From the aggressive angularity of the opening ‘Dance of the Evil Toys’ to an excursion into the tradition for a ravishing version of Jimmy McHugh’s ‘Sunny Side of the Street’, and from the moments of freedom in Branford Marsalis’s own ‘Life Filtering from the Water Flowers’ to the sensuous new ballad ‘Cianna’ by pianist Joey Calderazzo, the breadth and depth of the band’s playing bore out the claim.

Whether on tenor or soprano, Marsalis has the knack of making a melodic ballad improvisation sound like a considered part of the composed song, yet he can also launch into ferocious displays of technical mastery, a latterday ‘sheets of sound’ combined with the precise placement of every note. This was especially apparent where the rhythm section dropped back, or when Calderazzo took a breather, and left bassist Eric Revis and drummer Justin Faulkner to pace the saxophonist.

Calderazzo played at a dazzlingly high level, nowhere better than on Andrew Hill’s ‘Snakehips Waltz’ where the stops and punctuations of the jagged theme gave way to a hard-swinging solo. But the band held the best back till last. Keith Jarrett’s ‘The Wind-up’ had the audience on the edge of its seats, the joyous theme thrown in the air and caught – often unexpectedly – by the next soloist, and a long solo passage for Faulkner of trance-like intensity. We had great fun, but not it seems, as much as the band – if the grins, glances and comments passing between them were anything to go by.

Alyn Shipton
– Photo by Roger Thomas