Jazz music is often thought of as a genre best suited for night clubs. The “Jazz Age” during the prohibition era of 1920 to 1933 was a time when jazz music was known for being played in speakeasies where music fans could also get an adult beverage. Music and booze are like Reese’s peanut butter cups, two great flavors that go even better together. But the 21st century has seen the rise of the performing arts center, where venues designed for ultimate acoustics are presented as being so pristine that patrons can’t possibly be allowed to bring a beverage into the theater area.
Whether this is good or bad for the music is highly subjective, but it certainly does make for a different atmosphere. The Branford Marsalis Quartet concluded their west coast tour at such a venue with a Friday night performance at the Soka Performing Arts Center on the beautiful campus of Soka University in Orange County. The venue has the world-class acoustics with a theater designed by Yasuhisa Toyota, the same architect who created the renowned Walt Disney Hall in downtown Los Angeles. The latter is a venue that was deemed to have “the best acoustics ever” by Phish guitarist Trey Anastasio after he played a show there with the LA Symphony Orchestra in 2012 (though it has a similar beverage policy).
Marsalis and his band were thereby tasked with a bit of a challenge to deliver their usual top level show to a decidedly older crowd in a venue that seems to mainly host classical music performances, along with this “Jazz Monsters” series. But the virtuoso saxophonist is a true master of all trades in the music world. Marsalis has played psychedelic rock with the Grateful Dead and Widespread Panic, masterminded his own genre-bending funk / rock / jazz / hip-hop band Buckshot Lefonque, and has played in just about every jazz format imaginable.
The renowned sax man has been playing a number of classical music shows in recent years, though, and seems less interested with dabbling in the popular music sphere like he did in the ‘90s. He has however said he still hopes Buckshot Lefonque will get back together, and he did sit in with Furthur at Red Rocks last year, so fans can never be quite sure what Marsalis will do next. Buckshot’s brilliant Music Evolution album in 1997 pushed the boundaries of modern music to bold new frontiers, but it seems Marsalis has now settled back into a groove in his primary genre of world-class jazz.
Marsalis says he doesn’t tour behind albums and endeavors to play whatever feels right for a particular evening’s audience. He started the show on clarinet and seemed content to let things develop in a slow organic manner, with pianist Joey Calderazzo playing a prominent role. “Maestra” was a ballad that felt aimed at the older theater crowd, though Marsalis still delivered some of his signature fluid runs on the clarinet. The sound was indeed spectacular, with every note ringing out in crystal clarity.
The energy on stage picked up dramatically on “Teo”, a Thelonious Monk tune recorded by the band on 2012’s Four MFs Playin’ Tunes album that shows what this quartet can really do. Marsalis switched over to sax here and his notes seemed to dance with the strokes of drumming prodigy Justin Faulkner. Then Calderazzo’s piano and Eric Revis’ bass runs seemed to dance with each other, before the whole quartet synched in on a cohesive and energetic jam.
Faulkner joined the band in 2009 when he was just 18, after Marsalis found him in a Philadelphia master class for high school students. Many thought it was odd when the Smashing Pumpkins’ Billy Corgan hired 19-year-old drummer Mike Byrne to replace Jimmy Chamberlin that same year. But the kid proved to be a powerhouse and so too has Faulkner, suggesting that great musical minds think alike when it comes to hiring prodigious talent regardless of experience.
A wild free jazz jam later in the set saw Faulkner and Marsalis pushing each other through a dazzling sonic landscape, with the quartet all seeming to solo at once. Out of chaos came form, with Faulkner shining bright while Marsalis’ sax seemed connected to another realm in the space-time continuum. Reviews from San Francisco and Santa Cruz seemed to suggest more of the free-flowing jams at the Northern California shows, but at least Orange County got a taste. Which way Marsalis will go next is anybody’s guess, because the Jedi jazz master has just about done it all in his wide ranging career.