Branford Marsalis Quartet at the Pullo Center!

Jazz Buddies,

On Sunday night, the legendary Branford Marsalis Quartet appeared at Penn State University’s Pullo Center on its York, PA, campus, just 50-miles north of Baltimore.  This was one of the quartet’s first U.S. Jazz tours since the pandemic… and it hit the ground running!!!  Branford, of course, is the eldest musical son of the late, great New Orleans Jazz pianist, Ellis Marsalis, Jr. (1934-2020) and brother to Wynton, Delfeayo, and Jason.

I try to catch this amazing quartet whenever and wherever possible: (a) Kuumbwa’s in March 2009, (b-c) both Yoshi’s in September 2011, (d) Bethesda Blues & Jazz in March 2015, (e) S.F. Jazz in January 2019, and (f) Green Music Center – Sonoma State University in November 2019.  Branford’s seasoned quartet, featuring himself (ts/ss), Joey Calderazzo (p), Eric Reevis (b) and Justin Faulkner (d), has been together since March 2009, when the 18-year-old Philly native, Faulkner, joined the group.  Reevis and Calderazzo have been with Marsalis since 1997 and 1999, respectively.

Branford, playing soprano sax, kicked off the 100-minute performance, as he usually does, with Calderazzo’s up-tempo, guns blazing, take-no-prisoners “The Mighty Sword” from Branford’s 2012 release, Four MF’s Playin’ Tunes.  I’ll never forget when the quartet open its Yoshi’s – S.F. set in September 2011 (a month before it was recorded in the studio), with a talk, lanky, and young Faulkner hunched over his drum kit and just swingin’ hard as ever, driving both Calderazzo and Branford from the get-go… Wow!!!  And this was no different!

After the second tune, while the group was commiserating on what to play next, Branford fessed up to the audience that he doesn’t usually use a prepared set list; rather the groups plays whatever feels right at the time.  It’s that comfort level and trust with each other that clearly show through, as indicated by the set list below:

Set List

  1. The Mighty Sword* (J. Calderazzo)
  2. Conversation Among The Ruins (J. Calderazzo)
  3. When I Take My Sugar To Tea (P. Norman)
  4. Teapot / Sweet Georgia Brown (J. Johnson / M. Pinkard)
  5. Snake Hip Waltz* (A. Hill)
  6. Mo’ Better Blues* (B. Lee)
  7. A Thousand Autumns (B. Marsalis)
  8. On The Sunny Side Of The Street* (J. McHugh)
  9. It Don’t Mean A Thing (D. Ellington)
  10. My Bucket’s Got A Hole In It* (H. Williams) (Encore)

* On soprano sax

After two slow tempo tunes, the group buckled up once again for “Teapot”, then switching midstream into “Sweet Georgia Brown”, the former a contrafact of the latter.  Afterward, Branford playfully reminded the audience that it probably recognizes that song as the Harlem Globetrotter’s theme song.  Many heads nodded in agreement!

After playing “Snake Hip Waltz”, the melodic tune by Andre Hill, and discussing the next tune to play, someone in the audience shouted out “Mo’ Better Blues” (from the 1992 Spike Lee film starring Denzel Washington and Wesley Snipes).  Branford responded that that tune, recorded 30 years ago, brought back memories.  He and Terrence Blanchard wrote the original music for the film.  Branford comically recalled that Spike Lee’s father, bassist Bill Lee, who composed the song, was vehemently against contemporary music at the time and opposed his song sounding like Cannonball Adderley’s “Have Mercy On Me”.  However, when the royalty checks started rolling in six months later, he once again became fast friends with Branford!

Even funnier, though, was when Branford agreed to play “Mo’ Better Blues” as the next tune, both Calderazzo and Reevis stated that they didn’t quite know the tune.  But like the consummate professional, Branford played both the piano lines and the bass lines on his soprano saxophone such that both picked up the melody and changes very quickly.  In fact, Calderazza contributed a wonderful solo.  Ironically, Faulkner, who was just a toddler when the tune came out, already knew the changes!

Next, the group later played the beautiful ballad, “One Thousand Autumns”, that Branford wrote for Wayne Shorter, featuring Branford’s haunting tenor saxophone sound.  This was followed by the upbeat and very familiar 1930’s Depression-era tune by Jimmy McHugh, “On The Sunny Side Of The Street”.

In another humorous moment, after Branford announced that the last tune would be a Duke Ellington composition, Calderazzo started playing the opening notes to “Take The A Train”.  Branford said, “Oh no!” and started playing “It Don’t Mean A Thing”.  Not to be undone, Calderazzo inserted the opening notes during his solo, quite a feat…  Branford smiled back.

To rousing applause, the group reappeared for an encore.   A wonderful and memorable concert, indeed, by four “guys” playin’ tunes and having fun!!! :v)