Branford Marsalis. London Jazz Festival, November 2009.

Monday night at the London Jazz Festival saw saxophonist Branford Marsalis hit town, briefly.

He was preceded by award-winning pianist Robert Mitchell and his trio. They played a short but impressive set – I could have done with more, and I really want to see this band again.

When Branford hit the stage, though, the music hit a whole new level. The quartet started off at a cracking pace, pushed ahead by the hyper-active drumming of Julian Faulkner. Pianist Joey Calderazzo was really impressive too – Marsalis let him take long solos, and Calderazzo really shone: there was one ballard where his solo built and built. (I think Branford was off trying to mend his soprano which apparently suffered a prang with a drumstick…)

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But it was Branford’s evening. With Faulkner’s drumming, Calderazzo’s supportive piano and Eric Reavis’ bass, it was hard not to think of Coltrane’s quartet – especially when Marsalis was on soprano. He played lots of long solos, and even though he was laying down streams of notes, his sound remained warm and creative – he didn’t sound too “technical”, a trap some saxplayers fall into. He wasn’t showing off, he was just playing the best he could.

For the encore, Marsalis brought on British pianist (and Radio3 jazz presenter) Julian Joseph for a great version of St Louis Blues. This is such a standard that it must be hard to pull off – everyone in the audience probably has their own, favourite version. (Mine is Gil Evans’ from album “New Bottle, Old Wine.”) I had to stop myself singing along. The band brought their own style to this old number whilst simultaneously playing it straight. Branford’s younger brother Wynton would have felt proud – this was new, exciting music but deeply in the tradition.

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