[Marsalis Music]

Oct 2009




We’re swinging here in Boston as the annual Beantown Jazz Festival takes over the streets with stages fired up with Bebop and the Blues this month, and in October, the New England Conservatory’s Jazz Studies Program (founded by Gunther Schuller) celebrates its 40th anniversary with concerts by students and illustrious alumni in Boston and in New York City (in March). This week, Branford Marsalis and his Quartet burst onto the Berklee Performance Center stage and lit it up with highlights from their latest gem of a recording, Metamorphosen. This new recording features Joey Calderazzo on piano, Eric Revis on bass, Jeff “Tain” Watts on drums and Marsalis on soprano, alto and tenor saxophones. (Watts has recently left the Quartet to concentrate on new projects and his replacement is a dazzling 18-year–old drummer, Justin Faulkner, who is just starting his studies at Berklee College of Music.) With each member contributing original compositions to Metamorphosen, the recording is a cerebral, spirited and mesmerizing journey. The recording quality is superb, with a crackling, energetic soundstage. It also provides great image dimensionality that allows the listener to get up close and personal with the brilliant individual and collective musicianship on display. This is a Quartet for the Ages, captured at its height of creative energy, partnership and grace.

Metamorphosen ignites with the honks and cacophony of Watt’s composition, “The Return of the Jitney Man.” Watts ushers in the tune with a huge palette of cymbal sprays, with Revis’ walking bass underneath. Marsalis yelps and honks on his sax (as the jitneys speed by on the street) with a gorgeous, muscular fluidity. Calderazzo takes over the wheel with a furious re-working of the melody, spraying chords and notes high on his keyboard. Watts is a hurricane of cymbal and snare force, the engine behind all of this horn blowing action. Abruptly the traffic clears, and we are led into the luminous, slow building beauty of Calderazzo’s ballad, “The Blossom of Parting.” If your system is up to it, you will be immersed in the pulsating and quick hand taps from Watts on his drums, as he delicately creates a web of textures behind Calderazzo and Marsalis’ gentle ruminations on the central theme. Everything builds to a beautiful crescendo of colors and textures, erupting around Marsalis’ fiery soprano sax solo. Next, Marsalis leads us back to all that swagger and Swing on his composition, “Jabberwocky.” Here, Marsalis jabbers at length on his sax about everything under the Sun, while Revis follows behind him with lots of his own jawing and backbone. Revis finally grabs the limelight and he and Watts converse in huge bass exclamations and light-as-a-feather cymbal retorts that make it fascinating just to eavesdrop on their creative discourse.

Several cuts on Metamorphosen highlight the brilliant compositional give-and-take and wonderful rhythmic experimentation shared by these four compatriots. Revis’ oblique composition, “Abe Vigoda,” presents an off-kilter rhythm that lurches forward with unpredictable pace. Here, Marsalis sounds all chromatic and minor in his chord progressions, joined by Watts smoldering underneath him with cymbal hits and snare runs at unpredictable moments. “Sphere,” (also by Revis), brings us another uncanny stop and start melody that is passed from one player to the next, as if too hot to handle. Calderazzo swings fluidly and Bluesy and then passes the melody to Marsalis, who punches out with muscular notes up and down his sax, full and fearless. Fearless is also a great way to describe the Quartet’s take on Monk’s “Rhythm-A-Ning,” a full throttled journey through the myriad rhythmic worlds and textures offered in this composition. Marsalis takes off on a disjointed, fragmented ride, full of cross-purposes and intensity with Watts and Revis laying down a steady platform behind. Calderazzo’s solo is all angles and broken shards of punctuated notes. Then Watts steps forth and all heat and smoke break out with his explosive bass drum hits and quick, fluid snare runs that seem to defy gravity. He propels the number furiously, then masterfully directs the train into a slow, bluesy pull into the station where we return to hear Monk’s comic little theme, slowed to a final, restive crawl.

The last selections on Metamorphosen consist of a beautiful, visceral bass solo from Revis (“And Then, He Was Gone”) that concludes with Revis furiously scampering and plucking to create an avalanche of bass notes careening into the huge soundscape. All of this leads into the final number, Watt’s “Samo,” that moves, at first, like a sinuous, danceable Bossa. Everyone takes a stab at the flowing melody, building and building until we hear an onrushing panorama of sound, like a huge bustling city coming to life in early morning. There is a gorgeous immensity to this final convergence of sounds and textures in “Samo,” as Marsalis pierces radiantly on his soprano sax and his bandmates careen and frolic beside him until their final notes masterfully converge onto the familiar territory of the opening dance once more.

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