Monday, July 06, 2009

Concert Review: The Branford Marsalis Quartet, Pantages Theatre, 6/26/09, Winnipeg, MB

As far as I can remember, this was saxophonist Branford Marsalis' second time in Winnipeg, the first being in 1991 at the Concert Hall when he performed a tribute to the then recently deceased legendary band leader and drummer extraordinaire, Art Blakey (October 11, 1919 – October 16, 1990.) When Marsalis spoke to the audience at that show, he did so in a gravely voice, imitating Blakey, who also gave Marsalis one of his first starts in a band.

Eighteen years later, Marsalis returned to Winnipeg and has likely eclipsed his older brother Wynton as the biggest Marsalis name in jazz and by my estimation, is one of the top five biggest names in all of jazz. Hot on the heels of his just -released 24th recording, Metamorphosen, which also celebrates the Quartet's tenth year together without a line-up change, the band performed without long-time drummer Jeff "Tain" Watts, who is busy promoting his own recent 2009 album, Watts.

The band opened the show with “The Return of the Jitney Man,” penned by Watts and moved to other tracks from the newest recording, including “The Blossom of Parting,” with Marsalis performing on soprano sax. Marsalis presented himself as being supremely confident and gracious, constantly smiling. I would describe his performance as being flawless and seemingly effortless. When he wasn't playing, he quietly sat on a stool at the back and watched the then trio take flight on their own, as he chugged bottled water. He clearly didn’t hog the spotlight.

Pianist Joey Calderazzo was an absolute fireball of a performer, shifting around on his stool as if he was ready to take off, and fingers either flying rapidly or quietly caressing the keyboard, depending on the tune. He has seven solo albums, spanning 1991 to 2007 and is one of the first artists signed to Branford's own label, Marsalis Music. And he swings like nobody's business. Needless to say, I'd see the trio that he leads in a heartbeat. I’m also going to track down some of his solo recordings.

His performance was matched by veteran and Grammy award-winning bassist Eric Revis and the newest member, 18-year old Justin Faulkner. While I had had expectations for Marsalis and his regulars to perform superbly, I wasn't sure how well Faulkner would fill in for Watts, one of the most amazing drummers in all of jazz. Without a doubt, Justin Faulkner displayed a stunning command of the drum kit. His intensity on some tunes was so sustained and muscular that I pretty much expected him to keel over and collapse. It was simply breathtaking to watch him hit the kit with such expertise, ferociousness and speed, and when called for, delicacy. I believe he has a very bright future, to say the least. Not surprisingly, the applause he earned was only second to that of band leader Marsalis'.

Eric Nevis' acoustic bass was also performed with the type of virtuosity that you would expect, but still marvel at. Nevis propelled the band with subtle or aggressive selection of the notes and congruent playing. He has one album as band leader and has been a sideman on many recordings from some of the brightest players in the jazz idiom.

I would go out on a limb and say that the stars of the evening were Calderazzo and Faulkner, as they truly surpassed my expectations.

The opening band, the Michelle Gregorie Quintet, consisted of local pianist Gregoire and some of the top players in the Canadian jazz scene, saxophonist Kirk McDonald, trumpeter Kevin Turcotte, bassist Jim Vivian and drummer Ted Warren. These are the same players who performed on Gregoire's much lauded debut CD, 2004's Reaching. Gregoire proved herself to be not just a fine pianist, at times beautifully tinkling the keys when not swinging, but also a formidable composer, as the performance included some of her originals that I wanted to hear again, that the audience responded well to.Drummer Ted Warren was not just there to keep time, but to also entertain in his own right, with his own unforgettable style, which was quite notable on some of the original Gregoire compositions. He doesn’t play it safe and always looks likes he's having a great time, with his constant grin. The duo of McDonald and Turcotte each took turns soloing and earning well deserved applause. When Turcotte blasted out notes on the trumpet, he seemed to have the entire room's attention.

I'm trying to order Gregoire's CD, which was sold out at my favorite local book store, but I've special ordered it. Her new CD is due out in the fall. At the end of the show, each member of the Marsalis band was supplanted and then replaced by a member of Gregoire's band, until the entire band had changed, save for Marsalis. First, it was Ted Warren plunking down a stool beside Justin Faulkner and working a single drum until he took over Faulkner's kit. Kirk McDonald then appeared, taking Branford's spot. Michelle Gregoire sidled up to Joey Calderazzo and in one smooth move, took over the keyboard as he deftly slid off. Finally, Eric Nevis gave us the bass to Jim Vivian. Seeing one band virtually replaced with another while the music kept on playing was a real treat and a sign of the type of gracious person Branford is. The move had audience members applauding wildly and breaking out ear to ear smiles.

The only low point in the evening came when some member of the audience shouted out “drummer boy,” in reference to drummer Justin Faulkner. Marsalis, not sure what to make of the remark, which could have been seen as insulting since “boy” has been used as an offence way to refer to a black men, quickly deflected the comment by having him and Faulkner perform the Christmas classic “Little Drummer Boy” to the delight of the audience. I’d like to think that jazz audiences are sophisticated enough to not utilize racial taunts in this day and age, so I took the comment as being a reference to Faulkner’s obvious boyish looks.

If you counted the Derek Trucks Band’s show three days earlier, this was actually the first big jazz concert in the 2009 Jazz Winnipeg Festival. Now in its twentieth year, the festival has consistently brought to Winnipeg many of the best artists in jazz, save for a few notable exceptions like Keith Jarrett and John McLaughlin.

My rating for this show is 5/5.

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