Addressing the “casual jazz fans” in the crowded Jazz Bakery, Branford Marsalis proffered, “We feel your pain!” He alerted them that the hardcore Marsalis was at play, accompanied only by bass and drums, playing difficult, turbulent acoustic jazz teetering on the fringe of coherence yet refreshingly laced with an antic spirit.
There has never been a chameleon quite like Marsalis, who has moved from the mass media to esoterica with all stops in between, associating with folks as diverse as rappers, rock stars, Jay Leno, grizzled jazz legends and his brother Wynton. Consistent in his unpredictability, Marsalis has a new Buckshot LeFonque jazz/hip-hop album in the works for early 1997, right on top of November’s uncompromising trio CD, “The Dark Keys” (Columbia).
Yet Marsalis knows how to focus, zeroing in on a project or idiom with disciplined intensity before flitting somewhere else. Hence this gig, where Marsalis returned to a challenging format that has no harmonic safety nets for him or us.
Marsalis clearly relishes this setup, and he has something distinctive to say within it. He still pays obvious homage to his masters — John Coltrane repeatedly and, to a lesser extent, Sonny Rollins — and he closed with “St. Louis Blues” in a spare, sauntering manner on soprano sax that sounded first like Sidney Bechet, then Jimmy Giuffre.
Yet Marsalis uses space in an idiosyncratic way, grooving along with Reginald Veal (bass) and Jeff Watts (drums) in bursts, separated by long pauses in which the bustling rhythm section inspires new trains of thought. As in the past, the music tumbled around in meter-fracturing brawls — and in terms of pure soprano or tenor sax technique, Marsalis bows to no one.
Not everything worked; there were times when the inspiration would run thin, along with one’s patience. But Marsalis has a saving grace that most improvising purists don’t have, a charmingly irreverent stage presence — and it helps, of course, to have titles like “Brother Trying to Catch a Cab on the East Side Blues” keeping all of this serious business in perspective.