Jazz buffs have long known what “Tonight Show” viewers can only guess — that Branford Marsalis runs a world-class rhythm section. Occasional busman’s holiday gigs like Marsalis’ blues-drenched show at the Wiltern Theatre prove that the grind of daily television hasn’t dulled the band’s edge one bit.
Yet while the “Tonight Show” has made him the nation’s most visible jazz musician, Marsalis has yet to lead a mass following into the jazz tent — or we could be charitable and blame the sour economy. Even after the gig was moved from the huge Universal Amphitheatre to the Wiltern — and even after both Branford and Jay Leno plugged the date on the air — there were still a lot of empty seats in the house.
For this gig, Marsalis took up the theme of his latest album, “I Heard You Twice the First Time” (Columbia), a freewheeling tour through various styles of the blues.
The first number, whimsically titled “Brother Trying to Catch a Cab (on The East Side) Blues,” was a no-compromise, flat-out post-bop dash as drummer Jeff Watts, unleashed at last, drove Marsalis through a torrential tenor sax solo of breathless short phrases. He could produce a big open-hearted soprano sax tone on the Louis Armstrong Hot Five number “Skid-Dat-De-Dat,” while do-everything pianist Kenny Kirkland tossed in a jagged, spare, effective solo.
Forty minutes into the set, right in the middle of “Stretto From the Ghetto,” the tenor of the show changed completely. Electric blues master Albert Collins came on, with Kevin Eubanks chunking away on rhythm guitar. The beat stiffened as stinging leads, weird harmonics and percussive effects poured from Collins’ guitar, and things got funky. Linda Hopkins, a majestic yet mobile presence, added some high-voltage blues shouting in the second hour. In one of the encores , some adept piano blues with a surprisingly light touch emerged from an unbilled drop-in guest, Harry Connick Jr.
The rhythm section adapted easily to every stylistic detour, with a beaming Marsalis adding some of his tight, liquid obbligatos when the spirit moved him. And like the late Dizzy Gillespie, Marsalis doesn’t let his seriousness about music prevent him from having fun; he teased the audience musically and verbally throughout the night.