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Four MFs Playin' Tunes-- Branford Marsalis Quartet

The unassuming title of this CD doesn't do justice to the music contained therein. This is not a case of casual acquaintances getting together to have fun jamming on commonly known standards, but rather this is music played with purpose, direction, artistic integrity, and passion by four outstanding musicians who share some history together. Bassist Eric Revis was first heard on the Branford Marsalis Quartet's 1999 Requiem CD, while pianist Joey Calderazzo replaced the late Kenny Kirkland for the 2000 release of Contemporary Jazz. Drummer Jason Faulkner joined the group in 2009 upon the departure of Branford's longtime associate Jeff "Tain" Watts, and the now 20 year-old Faulkner makes his debut with the quartet on Four MFs. The extremely talented young drummer adds a certain spark that raises the quality of the music from the category of excellent to the rarefied air of the extraordinary. This just may be the Branford Marsalis Quartet's best recording to date.

Calderazzo leads off "The Mighty Sword" with a solo playing of his swirling Latin-flavored theme with its catchy three-note hook, which is then repeated by Marsalis on soprano. The pianist then takes flight with a propulsive solo that nearly takes your breath away in its persistent invention. Revis and Faulkner are in inspiring lock-step with him, as they are with Marsalis for his equally intense, probing improv. Anyone not already a huge fan of Faulkner's after his impressive display of power and flexibility on this initial track simply isn't listening. "Brews" is a Revis blues that sounds at first like Steve Lacy playing one of his quirky tunes influenced by Thelonious Monk. Marsalis' soprano solo, however, is much more voluble and outgoing than what Lacy would ordinarily produce. Calderazzo's solo cleverly toys with the thematic and rhythmic elements of the tune, while Revis' bass exploration offers a concise insight into his piece.

"Maestra" is a Revis tune that has been featured on the bassist's trio dates with Calderazzo, and is here broadened by the inclusion of Marsalis, on soprano once again. The leader's richness of sound on the instrument is most noticeable on this ecstatic ballad performance by all concerned, with the pianist's brilliantly expressive, emotionally generous solo the high point by far. Monk's "Teo" gets a fresh treatment, with the melody and rhythm slightly altered and Faulkner's drum work presenting a hyperactive and receptive perspective unlike that which is usually applied to Monk's works. Calderazzo's stalking solo leaves lots of space for Faulkner to excel in. Revis walks through his statement ingratiatingly before Marsalis provides the capper--a stomping, twisting, honking improv on tenor that acknowledges Charlie Rouse's phrasing while also clinging to its creator's own individual guideposts.

Marsalis' "Whiplash" is a theme out of Ornette Coleman that prompts Marsalis to improvise on tenor in Coleman's typically convoluted manner, not far removed from the territory of bop. Faulkner and Revis hold forth with the sensibilities respectively of Ed Blackwell and Charlie Haden. Calderazzo's solo of course upsets the apple cart--a sound not heard in a Coleman group since Walter Norris in the '50's. The pianist's trickling interplay with Faulkner resolves into a devastatingly energetic and dexterous solo by the newest star on drums. Calderazzo's "As Summer Into Autumn Slips" is an ethereal, primarily legato ballad line that is played with aching tenderness by Marsalis on soprano, with highly sensitive accompaniment by the trio. Revis carries an insistent three-note ostinato, while Faulkner's mallet and cymbal work is equally transfixing. Calderazzo and Marsalis develop compelling but contrasting improvisations--the pianist more refined than the more fiery saxophonist, with the latter peaking and then unwinding to the track's fulfilled soft landing.

Again one hears elements of Ornette Coleman's composing style in the circular, urgent theme of Marsalis' "Endymion," as well as in the rubato, arrhythmic nature of the piece as a whole. Calderazzo's amazing, relentlessly building solo might be described simply as Keith Jarrett meets Cecil Taylor. Revis evokes Haden yet again in his masterful solo, and Marsalis on tenor improvises with fervent lucidity. Faulkner's consummate skill by this point of the CD is almost taken for granted, and he comes through as expected, whether initiating or reacting. The old standard "My Ideal" gets the Sonny Rollins treatment from Marsalis, his tenor timbre, intro, rhythmic diversity, and thematic improv all exhibiting the best that Sonny has to offer, but channeled through Marsalis' personal stylistic prism, similar to how Lew Tabackin can convey Rollins so well in his playing. Calderazzo and Revis contribute thoughtful solos as well to round out this respectful exploration.

A bonus track composed by Marsalis, "Treat It Gentle," takes us back to his New Orleans roots. This delightful outing with Marsalis on soprano is obviously a salute to Sidney Bechet, given that Bechet's autobiography shares the same title. Calderazzo solos lyrically before Marsalis soars and swoops with endearing vitality. Shades of "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?" pervade harmonically throughout the selection.

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Scott Albin