Review: Drummer propels Branford Marsalis Quartet

Branford Marsalis Quartet, "Four MFs Playin' Tunes" (Marsalis Music)

Don't let the understated title of the new Branford Marsalis Quartet album mislead you into thinking this is some loosely arranged jam session. Saxophonist Marsalis leads one of the most cohesive, intense small jazz ensembles on the scene today. The group's three long-standing members — Marsalis, pianist Joey Calderazzo and bassist Eric Revis — each contribute original tunes to "Four MFs Playin' Tunes" and there are covers of Thelonious Monk's "Teo" and the 1930s ballad "My Ideal."

The quartet's tight interplay reflects that the group has undergone only one lineup change in more than a decade. That came in 2009 when Marsalis' collaborator of a quarter century, drummer Jeff "Tain" Watts, left and was replaced by then 18-year-old high school senior Justin Faulkner, who propels the band with new energy on his studio recording debut with the quartet. Faulkner confirms his rising-star status as he engages in intricate dialogues with the tenor saxophonist and pianist on Marsalis' "Whiplash" before climaxing with a riveting, powerhouse drum solo. On the next track, Calderazzo's ethereal ballad "As Summer Into Autumn Slips," the drummer displays his finesse with his soft mallet-and-cymbal accompaniment.

The CD begins with two tunes showcasing Marsalis' prowess on soprano sax — Calderazzo's playful, energetic "The Mighty Sword," with a catchy calypso-like theme reminiscent of Sonny Rollins, and Revis' bluesy Monk-influenced "Brews," where Marsalis turns in a blazing solo. It closes with Marsalis turning down the heat on the romantic standard "My Ideal" with a touching, tender tenor sax solo and on the bonus track "Treat It Gentle," an original old-style Marsalis ballad that pays homage to his New Orleans roots, drawing its title from the autobiography of Sidney Bechet, who created the vocabulary for the soprano sax in jazz.

This album shows that Marsalis' quartet hasn't skipped a beat with the change in the drummer's chair, effortlessly playing often complex original tunes that are thoroughly modern while referencing past jazz masters.

CHECK THIS TRACK OUT: On "Teo," Marsalis cleverly reimagines the Monk composition by slightly changing the melody and rhythm, launching into a hard-driving tenor sax solo spurred on at the end by a call-and-response dialogue with Faulkner.

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