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Branford Marsalis Quartet’s excellence is a team effort

The Branford Marsalis Quartet performs at Berklee Performance Center Saturday night. From left: Joey Calderazzo, Eric Revis, Branford Marsalis, and Justin Faulkner.Robert Torres/Celebrity Series

No matter how happy the sold-out crowd at Berklee Performance Center was Saturday night — as evidenced by their multiple cheers and ovations, or the happy chatter on the street afterward — no one was happier than the band onstage. Throughout their 90-minute show, the members of the Branford Marsalis Quartet goaded each other to multiple high points, laughed at each other’s jokes, musical and otherwise, and, most important, listened. They listened with rapt attention during their bandmates’ solos, occasionally commenting with their instruments, or just taking it all in.

The quartet — in various iterations — has been at the core of Marsalis’s music-making since 1986. The “new” member of the current band (drummer Justin Faulkner) joined in 2009. You might expect that such familiarity could breed a staleness of presentation and execution.


Not so here. From the first notes of pianist Joey Calderazzo’s “The Mighty Sword,” with its short-phrase starts and stops and furious tempo, the band was flying, carrying the pianist and Marsalis’s soprano sax aloft on fast, boppish runs. But it wasn’t all speed and fury. The band immediately downshifted for Calderazzo’s “Conversation Among the Ruins,” and we heard their ability to shape a piece through dynamics and texture. Calderazzo’s solo in particular gave every chorus its own flavor through a mix of beautifully voiced chords, single-note phrases, and contrasting bass and high treble passages.

Here, too, one heard the beauty of Marsalis’s ballad playing, again on soprano, his ability to shape a line with a singer’s sense of legato phrasing. Later in the set, when he turned to tenor sax for the swing-era “When I Take My Sugar to Tea,” a final note decrescendoed with breathy vibrato until it was nothing but breath.

There were plenty more fireworks, including an ebullient take on Keith Jarrett’s “The Windup,” with its knotty rhythms and concise pop-song hookiness. Bassist Eric Revis’s “Nilaste,” on the other hand, was wide-ranging through dynamic and tempo shifts, Faulkner playing a crucial role with Revis in guiding the narrative from widely spaced ruminative phrases to high-velocity turbulence.


But Faulkner, too, was a genius of nuanced color. On the encore of the New Orleans chestnut “My Bucket’s Got a Hole in It,” he pared his accompaniment down to just his sticks tapping each other in syncopated patterns, conjuring a tap dancer, an image reinforced by the subsequent slow drag of his snare, like the legendary hoofer Howard “Sandman” Sims.

Marsalis, now 62, has had a multifarious and celebrated career — with symphony orchestras, as musical director of “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno,” and any number of pop collaborations, including, most famously, with Sting and the Grateful Dead. But his quartet, it seems, is his jazz home base. It was a joy to be part of this homecoming.


Presented by Celebrity Series of Boston. At Berklee Performance Center, Saturday, Jan. 28