Branford Marsalis hosted the gala three-night Marsalis Music launch at Birdland, boasting, “Conceptualists, not just improvisers, are the essence of the label.” To illustrate his point, Marsalis introduced the dazzling altoist Miguel Zenon, who lost little time “conceptualizing” with a fevered hour of explorative, Latin-tinged jazz.
Opening set showcased Zenon and his fiery sidemen in selections from his CD “Ceremonial,” including a racing “440” and Silvio Rodriguez’s “Leyenda.” Zenon has a rich full-bodied tone, and he is a creatively fertile player. His phrasing is adventurous and the guy has chops.
“Great Is Thy Faithfulness” was a poetic reflection of Zenon’s gospel roots. Zenon was supported by his tightly polished rhythm section, with bassist Hans Glawischnig cutting through the fever-pitched tempos with bold, clean lines.
Marsalis fronted the second set with the romping musical portrait of “Mr. J.J.” (or “Jay Jay Was His Name”), showcasing selections from the label’s inaugural CD, “Romare Bearden Revealed.” The jazz imagery serves as a tribute to the late, legendary Harlem renaissance artist. Marsalis’ assured and readily identifiable playing reflected his reliably lustrous good tone.
Playing soprano sax on “Mahna de Carnival,” Luiz Bonfa’s classic movie theme from “Black Orpheus,” Marsalis settled into an exotic frame that glistened in a most appealing way.
In a Monkish kind of groove, Marsalis wrapped it all up with a firm textural performance that was harmonically steeped in classicism and a real groove that boldly defined his visionary new mission.
Drummer Jeff Watts, whose rig is dominated by four huge ride cymbals, is an impressive timekeeper who added considerable taste and precision to the set; at the piano, Joey Calderazzo’s galloping arpeggio runs and flights were exhilarating.