Saturday, June 13, 2009

Off the Hook

"I'm 49 and I never thought I'd see the day when I'd be asking my drummer how the prom was: 'Off the hook! It was off the hook!'" Branford Marsalis laughed, imitating the response of his young new drummer, Justin Faulkner. His high regard and affection for Faulkner are obvious in the several exchanges the two had over the course of the show.

<---(Marsalis, photo courtesy of the Discover Jazz Festival)

Justin Faulkner's addition to the quartet marks the first personnel change for the group in a decade, as the 18-year old highschool senior steps in to replace sticks veteran Jeff "Tain" Watts. These aren't even big shoes to fill, this is more on the scale of filling an Olympic-size swimming pool - where to begin? And yet Faulkner more than holds his own with fellow Quartet members Marsalis (saxes), Joey Calderazzo (piano) and Eric Revis (bass). Once in a while it seemed his exuberance came through a bit over-balanced (loud), but I'd have a hard time coming up with any other criticism of this remarkable young player. Even that comment must be taken in consideration of the whole, which was overall a dazzling night of music-making.

It began at 7:30pm with the Vermont All State Jazz Ensemble, and their swinging, bluesy Such Sweet Thunder, a Duke Ellington classic. They got all of that one. Another highlight was their program-closer, the hot Dizzy Gillespie number Birk's Works. When Marsalis took the stage a little later in the evening he remarked on the Jazz Ensemble's sound and said he had interrupted a conversation backstage just to be able to listen more closely. Strong solos, tight ensemble work: nice all the way around.

As for the Quartet, everyone shone. Faulkner chewed through each number with his non-stop nine-armed technique; Calderazzo and Marsalis shared some especially beautiful, heartfelt moments in Calderazzo's multi-textured ballad, The Blossom of Parting (Marsalis employing the sweet high voice of the soprano sax) - but for my ears the coup de grĂ¢ce was the closer, a simmering, seething original by Jeff "Tain" Watts called Samo.

It began after all of the players except Revis had left the stage, and for the next several minutes he delivered a blistering, thumping, howling solo on the upright bass which included lots of bent notes, rhythmic, athletic slides up and down the strings, and arpeggios plucked BELOW the bridge (yep, waaaaay down there). I've never heard that much sound - volume and quantity - come out of a double bass in a single solo. You can't pull things like that off convincingly without knowing every inch of your instrument's - and your own - abilities. It was electrifying.

At the moment it seemed the instrument might just wilt under the weight of its own output, the other three Quartet members filed on stage, the bass returned to its usual, more contained expressive range, and the rest of the piece unfolded, ponderously and quietly at first, before accelerating and crescendoing into the finale that brought the audience to its feet in ovation. Wow.

For an encore the Quartet offered a good ol' fashioned sassy, laid-back St. Louis Blues. We were due for a little Big Easy after Samo.

Off the hook, that's a fact.

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