Ronnie Scott’s house magazine seemed to be carrying a health warning with its splashed quote from the American saxophonist Branford Marsalis: “I’m not trying to alienate the audience.”
In fact Marsalis’s studiously rough-and-tumble stage persona harks back to jazz’s murky past, and communicates a real joy in an approach that makes his gigs a ferociously intense experience.
His current line-up has been together for eight years – the pianist Joey Calderazzo joined following the premature death of Kenny Kirkland – and they have developed an on-stage togetherness that makes distinctions between soloist and rhythm section somewhat redundant. They are partners in a collective enterprise that draws you into a soundscape of beat- spitting rhythms, sensuous melancholia and thunderous climax, dotted with in-jokes born of group effort – the first set’s “Sir Roderick, the Aloof” was dedicated to their tour manager.
Most of this gig’s themes were originals tailor-made for the linear approach they so devastatingly deliver, right from the off. “The Impaler”, written by drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts, sets up a tricky, multi-noted melody with a simple three-note motif. Extended solos from Marsalis on tenor and Joey Calderazzo on piano were a precursor to a Watts’ riff-supported drum extravaganza.
Elsewhere, a subtle reggae pulse emerged out of the mist of a rhapsodic piano solo, a call to prayer shifted into an ever faster swing, multi-noted cascades turned on a sixpence and there was even a brief hint of off-kilter indie-rock in Watt’s second set drum solo.
But what really makes the Marsalis band stand out is their group sound and understanding of pulse. They have the tuning and control of classical music and the emotional integrity of jazz. And the bassist Eric Revis is so solid that the band can place notes with abandon. It was fitting therefore that it was Revis’s programmatic composition and feature “The Black Elk Speaks” that climaxed the second set and won an encore: a medium blues on which the British pianist Julian Joseph appeared as a guest. ★★★★★
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