by Darren Mueller and Matthew Somoroff
We need to quit thinking of songs as vehicles and think of them as songs, and treat each song with equality… What [pianist Joey Calderazzo and I] are trying to do is to figure out the emotional purpose of each song we play and then play according to that purpose, as opposed to musicians who spend their time developing what they call a concept. The biggest drawback of developing a concept is that everything you play has to be filtered through that concept. Ergo, every song ends up sounding exactly the same, which is called consistency, but it’s actually just dull-ass repetition. There’s nothing consistent about it. On [Songs of Mirth and Melancholy], I think that’s what we achieved: intellectual and musical consistency, even though all the songs are different. —Branford Marsalis at his Duke Performances listening session
There is a lot to Branford Marsalis’ line of thinking here. Jazz composers such as Charles Mingus, Gil Evans, or Maria Schneider would most likely not only agree with Marsalis, but also say that this approach is a foregone conclusion to their musical conception. The recorded work of Miles Davis’ 1960s quintet, to which Marsalis referred, during the listening session, as one of his inspirations to pursue jazz, represents a similar approach to small-group improvisation. During the latter half of the decade, Davis’ style of playing on versions of “Agitation” differed from his playing on “I Fall in Love Too Easily.” The differences went beyond variance in tempo, encompassing timbral inflections, phrasing, and overall concept.
On January 13 at Reynolds Theater—the first date of the Branford Marsalis Quartet’s two-night, sold-out Duke Performances engagement—Marsalis practiced what he preaches. On the Quartet’s rendition of Monk’s “Teo,” Marsalis channeled the sound of 1950s Sonny Rollins—he shifted his timbre, articulations of notes, rhythmic feel, and accents into the “Sonnyzone.” It was so obvious that it did not seem to be just a matter of his imitating Rollins, but a conviction that Sonny’s sound from back then was a good stylistic match for this Monk tune.
More broadly, Marsalis’ “Sonnyzone” was a demonstration of just how multifaceted and versatile his playing with his quartet has become over the years. From the brash, energetic opener, “Twister,” to the incredibly contemplative encore, “Hope” (written for the late saxophonist, Michael Brecker), the Quartet seamlessly went from post-bop swing to New Orleans second line and everywhere in between. The high level of musicianship, intention, and exuberance maintained throughout the two-hour concert demonstrated what Marsalis seems to mean by “consistency.”
Such consistency can only come from playing together as a quartet, night after night, for decades (though sensational drummer Justin Faulkner has only been a member since 2009) and the comfort between members of the quartet was on display throughout the night. There was a moment in between tunes when the musicians were dealing with sheet music on their stands. Marsalis shuffled papers around, handed a sheet back to bassist Eric Revis, and consulted for a moment with pianist Joey Calderazzo. It was rapid-fire, pages of music changing hands, Marsalis turning to and fro—it almost looked like a Marx Brothers routine. Once they got the sheet music straight, they quickly launched into a tune and, WHAM!—they were instantly in the pocket.
Was there truly such a level of confusion? Or did the musicians play up the comedy only to throw the crowd off by abruptly shifting gears into virtuoso musician mode? The shift itself was virtuosic, and strong evidence of the group’s command of the stage. For us, seeing the musicians turn to one another to humorously exchange musical ideas made the performance feel more dynamic.
When Marsalis mentioned several of his students’ presence at the concert, we were reminded that Durham is his home. While he’s probably comfortable playing anywhere at this point in his career, it may have felt different playing for people he knows, with whom he shares some sense of community. But this didn’t stop him from poking a little fun at his students. Following extended applause after one particularly memorable drum solo from Faulkner, Marsalis told the crowd,
We had to play that last song, ["In the Crease,"] because a lot of my students are here. Joey and I used to laugh at them because they were always playing that song and they think, “We’re killing. Yeah, we sound great!” Then I ask them to play a blues and they’re like, “Oh, we suck.” Learn that first, please.
The infectious enjoyment the quartet displayed is something rare, an aspect of performance that, in this case, came from the sincerity of the musicians. From the tribute to soprano saxophonist Sidney Bechet, “Treat it Gentle,” to the untitled ballad written by Calderazzo (“Joey’s Ballad” as Marsalis called it), they looked like musicians who trusted one another musically and were glad to be performing for an appreciative audience.
The majority of their repertory during the concert came from their most recent album, which has yet to be released. Several times, Marsalis accentuated this fact during the announcements between tunes, even surprising the band members from time to time by announcing the name of a tune which they had previously known as being untitled. But the distinction between playing a song in the studio and playing it during a concert makes sense. However consummate the musicians, in the studio they play knowing that if necessary they can do it over. Not only are there more risks in playing for an audience, there are potentially more rewards. The studio affords the possibility of correcting musical mistakes, but it precludes the possibility of feeling the energy of a big, enthusiastic crowd.
Improvisers of all kinds often purposefully accentuate the spontaneity of the music for the audience as if to say, “See what we did there? That was pretty sweet, wasn’t it?” In the case of the Branford Marsalis Quartet, it is indeed impressive. Their consistency in level of execution (musical and otherwise) sounded almost effortless, which is a true a sign of mastery.
Guest poster Matthew Somoroff is a PhD candidate in the Music Department at Duke University, where he is currently writing a dissertation on jazz and listening practices. Other research and teaching areas include African-American music, US popular music, and music aesthetics. His writing has appeared in the journals Ethnomusicology, Jazz Perspectives, and Popular Music and Society. The Thread‘s Darren Mueller’s bio can be found here.