Branford Marsalis Quartet 2024
Photo: Rick Swig

The Branford Marsalis Quartet Deliver a Winter Warmer at SFJazz Center

New Orleans jazz saxophone master Branford Marsalis and his quartet throw down hot jams to heat up a cold rainy night in San Francisco.

It’s a cold, stormy night in San Francisco in what’s been another very wet winter for California, with a series of atmospheric rivers that increasingly seem attributable to global climate change. But the tempest makes this Friday evening a good one for pregaming with ramen and sake at Nojo Ramen just up the street from the SFJazz Center, where the Branford Marsalis Quartet are about to kick up a sonic storm here on 1st March.

It’s night two of a four-night residency for Marsalis at the classy venue that’s become the largest non-profit jazz presenter in the world. But it’s not too classy that you can’t enjoy a drink during the show, like some of the performing arts centers that won’t let patrons bring drinks into their pristine concert halls (which seems almost antithetical to the concept of live jazz.) The seats here all have drink holders, and the auxiliary bar even has a barrel-aged Manhattan on the menu.

As to the renowned jazz sax master from New Orleans, Branford Marsalis continues to occupy a lofty artistic space that garners acclaim such as “the highest echelon of jazz tenor saxophonists” (Los Angeles Times) who “leads one of the most cohesive, intense small jazz ensembles on the scene today” (Associated Press). But what really makes Branford Marsalis a lasting star in the larger pop cultural scheme of things is how he’s conquered nearly every genre in popular music, enabling him to draw fans from many sectors of the music world. 

Marsalis is more about doing his own thing these days, as he told PopMatters in 2019, but his thing can incorporate a wide array of aesthetic elements, making it interesting to see what he’ll do next. As the quartet hit the stage, there’s some banter about the heavy weather, with Marsalis referencing Mark Twain’s quote about summer in San Francisco and imagining the wintertime. Things heat up quickly as the group go right into a high-energy tune with Marsalis on soprano sax over a swinging groove from bassist Eric Revis and drummer Justin Faulkner. Pianist Joey Calderazzo goes off with a dynamic piano solo, setting the tone for a big night.

It turns out to be Calderazzo’s song “The Mighty Sword” from the quartet’s 2012 album Four MFs Playin’ Tunes, which could be an apt description of this band throwing down on any given night since they’re all monster instrumentalists. It serves as a mere prelude for the following number, though. It starts as a bluesy power trio-style groove, with Calderazzo leading the way before Marsalis comes in with some smooth tenor sax. 

The chemistry between the four band members really gels here as they keep building up the energy of what soon becomes a sizzling jam. Faulkner adds some timely cowbell action, while Calderazzo’s fluid piano lines start flowing like water from a hose that merges with the sax melodies for some uplifting sonic alchemy. The quartet are really feeling it now because they keep on going, with the rhythm section pushing the powerful jam in what starts to feel like a hard rock direction. 

The energy level in the room surges as the minor-key jam builds to a big crescendo before breaking like a wave into a beautiful major-key bliss mode with a southern R&B vibe. It feels like the type of transcendent jam-rock catharsis that one might experience at a show from the Grateful Dead, Widespread Panic, or Phish. But it’s the Branford Marsalis Quartet playing tunes on a Friday night at SFJazz. 

Marsalis did jam with both the Dead and Panic in the 1990s and again in more recent years with surviving members of the Dead in post-Garcia incarnations. He’s yet to jam with Phish, however, despite a 1997 affirmation that “it will happen” in an email reply to this reporter (who had loved seeing him play with the Dead at the LA Sports Arena and queried him on whether he was familiar with the jam-rock phenoms from Vermont.) But this second tune of the night was the kind of jam that brings such a potential collaboration to mind again, as there are clearly some similar influences with how jazz improv pioneers like Miles Davis and John Coltrane influenced the psychedelic rock of the 1960s and beyond.

The big jam turns out to have been Keith Jarrett‘s “‘Long as You Know You’re Living Yours” from 1974’s Belonging album. Jarrett honed his skills with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers and Miles Davis during his cutting-edge electro-funk fusion era in 1970-1971, so it’s easy to see where the grooving jam influence emerged here. But the Branford Marsalis Quartet version goes deeper than the six-minute studio track to take the song to a higher dimension.

The Branford Marsalis Quartet bring it down on Calderazzo’s ballad “Conversation Among the Ruins”, starting contemplative for a few minutes, then picking up on a mid-tempo groove with more flowing piano. Marsalis comes in on soprano sax again before the quartet bring it back down with Faulkner clapping beats out with his hands. At the end of the tune, Marsalis informs the audience of the first three song titles while teasing Calderazzo a bit for griping about the walk back up Mason Street to the band’s hotel up on one of The City’s famously steep landscapes. 

Marsalis introduces the next number as a 1931 classic from Sammy Fain, “When I Take My Sugar to Tea”. It has a traditional Dixieland vibe, infusing a charmingly romantic old-timey vibe into the set and with a slow drum solo spotlight for Faulkner. The band groove again on the next number with more flowing piano from Calderazzo, who seems to feel it tonight. There’s another dynamic groove here while Marsalis and Calderazzo weave their melodies around the rhythm section. Reevis digs into some bluesy bass soloing over tight syncopations from Faulkner and Calderazzo, followed by Marsalis throwing down some excellent alto sax soloing as the whole unit grooves in masterful fashion.

The heady jam turns out to be “Spiral Dance”, another number from Jarrett’s 1974 Belonging album that now appears to be a lost classic. The theme continues as the band follows with another feel-good jam on “The Windup”, a third song from Jarrett’s Belonging album but one that the Branford Marsalis Quartet recorded their version of on 2019’s The Secret Between the Shadow and the Soul. Calderazzo leads the way over an up-tempo groove before Marsalis goes off with dazzling sax work as he and Calderazzo trade melodies back and forth on a sensational jam to close out the nearly 90-minute set.

The Branford Marsalis Quartet take it back to what sounds like old-school New Orleans on the encore of “Bucket’s Got a Hole in It”, with an extra guest sax player joining the fun for a festive jam to close out the evening. With a 7:30 pm start time, the show is over around 9:00 pm, which feels somewhat early by Friday night standards. But that generates an opportunity for a nightcap at a nearby watering hole like the Phonobar on Grove Street, where DJs spin vinyl on a high-end sound system while patrons sip on delicious craft cocktails. Mark Twain would surely approve.