Jazz review: Branford Marsalis and Terence Blanchard at the Broad Stage
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Split evenly between two groups, Saturday’s show featuring Branford Marsalis and Terence Blanchard felt a little like watching a prize fight. No punches were thrown and there was nothing less than harmony between the players, but a double-bill featuring two of the biggest names in contemporary jazz is undoubtably a main event, and the stylistic contrast between the two heavyweights was striking.
In the first of two performances at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica (the show traveled to Segerstrom Hall in Costa Mesa on Sunday), Marsalis and Blanchard didn’t disappoint fans expecting a full plate of free-swinging jazz. With stints backing Sting, the Grateful Dead and even Jay Leno over his long career, Branford may be the most musically experimental of his brothers in the Marsalis jazz dynasty, and his long-running quartet opened the show with a burning intensity that gathered strength as the evening went on.
Entering the stage in sharp suits in line with the ‘young lions’ movement from the ‘80s, the group started cooking so fast that the jackets were quickly set aside. After a hard-swinging opener, pianist Joey Calderazzo took the reins leading the group through a reverently bouyant take on the Monk classic ‘Teo,’ which bassist Eric Revis’ colored with a wry nod to ‘Green Chimneys’ in his solo turn.
Though Marsalis spent much of his set prowling the rear of the stage and giving his group room to run as a trio, he was front and center on ‘Hope,’ a slow-burning ballad that carried the spare melancholy of Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight Sonata’ before building to a noisy catharsis between Marsalis’ soprano saxophone wails and a torrent of percussion from young drummer Justin Faulkner.
Replacing the quartet’s longtime drummer Jeff ‘Tain’ Watts in 2009 at just 18 years old, Faulkner was a monster behind the kit all night, and his wild solo closing out ‘In the Crease’ earned howls from the crowd as he unleashed an avalanche of polyrhythms that somehow only built in intensity. When Blanchard joined the quartet on trumpet to close Marsalis’ night with a twisty ‘Return of the Jitney Man’ from 2009’s ‘Metamorphosen,’ you had to wonder if the breakneck pace could continue for a second set.
Drawing primarily from his 2009 album ‘Choices,’ Blanchard instead turned the night further inward. Introducing the music midway through the set as partly inspired by social issues and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina on his native New Orleans, Blanchard’s half of the night was mostly dark and unsettled, such as with the contemplative ‘Winding Roads.’ A number of times Blanchard triggered spoken-word samples from scholar and civil rights activist Cornel West, which on record could work against the music’s thoughtful spell, but here West’s words felt more like an opening invocation.
While the set was marred somewhat by pianist Fabian Almazan being too low in the mix to fully absorb his knotty and off-kilter playing, it was marked by flashes of rich exploration. Young drummer Kendrick Scott kept the group on its toes with flickering beats that flirted with a drum-and-bass drive, and Blanchard’s smoothly arcing trumpet gained a ghostly heft when he electronically doubled his melody lines over the spiraling swing of ‘Him or Me.’ Blanchard’s set didn’t pack the same sort of punch as Marsalis’ more visceral turn, but his passion hit hard nonetheless.
-- Chris Barton