When he recorded his most recent CD, Four MFs Playin' Tunes, Branford Marsalis said he just wanted to play the best of what's out there, no matter who wrote it. He took the same approach to the selections performed during An Evening with Branford Marsalis on Saturday night at CSUN's Valley Performing Arts Center.
Though his quartet played only seven numbers in the hour and three quarters they held the stage, their choices revealed the breadth of talent encompassed by these extraordinary jazz musicians. New songs, old songs, songs by masters, songs of their own composition--nothing was off-limits for saxophonist Marsalis, a three-time Grammy winner, and the three other members of his quartet: Joey Calderazzo on piano, Eric Revis on bass and Justin Faulkner on drums.
Most of the numbers needed no introduction, which was a good thing because they usually didn't get one. Like race horses chomping at the bit to run, the quartet couldn't wait to get started and to launch into one number after the next. In most cases, only after they had concluded a few selections did Marsalis offer up a hasty review of what had been played.
That didn't diminish the quartet's polished performance before a packed and appreciative audience, but it was something of a surprise. Marsalis is nearly as well-known for his efforts at music education as he is for his virtuoso performances.
He's also known for his stint as musical director of the Tonight show during the first two years Jay Leno occupied the host's chair. He returned to the show Friday night for "a little homecoming."
On Saturday, Marsalis won applause, usually more than once, for each number, all of it deserved. Personally, I think he saved the best for last.
As its encore performance, the quartet's rendition of Tiger Rag burst with the joyous sound of Dixieland Jazz. You could almost breathe the air of the French Quarter in Marsalis' hometown as the quartet sounded each passage.
Other favorites were Teo and Summer Into Autumn Slips, both cuts on the Four MFs CD.
Teo was originally a tribute by Thelonious Monk to his producer, Teo Macero. Marsalis chose his alto sax to infuse the number with quintessential bebop style and rhythms. The number also gave each member of the quartet a turn in the spotlight.
Summer Into Autumn Slips is a composition of pianist Calderazzo and, as Marsalis correctly described it, a 180-degree turn from the collective improvisations of the previous selection. This was a slow and delicate song, quieter in many parts and more suited to Marsalis' soprano sax. It featured a more haunting sound and a more deliberate approach.
In his brief opening remarks, Marsalis praised the quality and the design of the Valley Performing Arts Center, echoing comments made about as frequently at the start of nearly every performance as the request that all cell phones be turned off. Fortunately, the words still contain the ring of sincerity and they still are preferable to the more generic, "Hello, Northridge."