By Calvin Wilson
Jazz saxophonist Branford Marsalis isn’t the kind of artist who panders to an audience. When he ventures onto a stage, what you hear is what you get. And Friday evening at the Blanche M. Touhill Performing Arts Center, that meant an exhilarating, challenging and thoroughly entertaining show.
Accompanied by pianist Joey Calderazzo, bassist Eric Revis and drummer Justin Faulkner, the former “Tonight Show” bandleader confirmed his reputation as a performer who embraces tradition while remaining open to an infinite range of improvisational possibilities. The concert in the Anheuser-Busch Performance Hall, presented by the Touhill in association with Jazz St. Louis, attracted about 760 people.
Things got off to a thumping start with “The Return of the Jitney Man,” a tune from Marsalis’ latest album, “Metamorphosen.” The onstage energy was palpable as Marsalis and Calderazzo turned in solos of vibrancy and wit.
Thelonious Monk’s “Teo” inspired some of the most satisfyingly modernistic jazz of the evening, including a Marsalis solo that reflected influences from swing to the avant-garde. His ability to draw outside the lines while bringing in the crowd was breathtaking.
Still, for sheer eloquence it would be hard to top Marsalis’ treatment of the jazz standard, “Our Love is Here to Stay.” With subtlety and grace, he captured the romance of the tune while deftly sidestepping schmaltz. It was a performance worthy of saxophone greats Lester Young and Ben Webster.
Throughout the evening, the combo displayed an almost telepathic rapport. Calderazzo is an underrated but resourceful pianist, and Revis makes his bass sing. Fans of the group might have been disappointed that it didn’t include longtime drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts. But newcomer Faulkner thrilled the crowd with his energy and inventiveness.
Jazz is often dismissed as an art music that can’t connect with mainstream listeners. But a lot depends on how it’s played and who’s playing it, as Marsalis and his collaborators imaginatively and successfully demonstrated.