Marsalis quartet in top form at Smith Center

Those expecting a one-man show must have been disappointed.

But for those who had come to see — and hear — the Branford Marsalis Quartet, the what’s-in-a-name question took a back seat to the music.

Playing two sold-out shows Saturday night at The Smith Center’s intimate Cabaret Jazz club, the Marsalis quartet demonstrated that jazz is nothing if not a team sport — and that a solo in the spotlight is no match for an in-sync team grooving in top form.

Oh, there’s no mistaking Marsalis’ star presence. After all, he’s the one with the famous name, the Grammy Awards, and the résumé that stretches from Sting to Jay Leno’s "Tonight Show."

Despite his past pop and funk forays, however, there’s no mistaking his serious commitment to, and serious command of, a wide-ranging jazz repertoire.

During the first of two Saturday night sets, Marsalis led his equally accomplished bandmates — pianist Joey Calderazzo , drummer Justin Faulkner and bassist Eric Revis — through a stylistically varied but consistently rewarding program, one that showcased all four players delivering everything from blues to bop. And beyond.

The quartet kicked off in high gear with Calderazzo’s rousing "The Mighty Sword," its jittery rhythms setting the stage for Marsalis’ fluid solos (on soprano sax) and equally fluid interplay among his fellow musicians.

Revis’ "Maestra " provided immediate contrast, Calderazzo’s shimmering glissandos introducing a pensive ballad that stretched out to make room for Marsalis’ dreamy solos and Revis’ own lyrical melodic lines. In keeping with the contemplative mood, Faulkner downshifted to a softer, quieter mode, his muted cymbals suggesting the steady splash of a rolling tide.

Marsalis switched to tenor sax for Thelonious Monk’s "Teo ," the change in instruments signaling an earthier approach, with insistent honks and irreverent bleats punctuating sailing, wailing post-bop sounds as his bandmates wove in and out in seamless fashion.

Throughout the set, Marsalis spent as much time in the background as he did up front, leaving the driving to his fellow musicians while he sat back, smiled and nodded his head, keeping time with the insistent beat before returning for a last blast or two.

As he well knew — and as those of us in the audience discovered — we were in expert hands.

Calderazzo — who first played with Marsalis in his funky Buckshot Le Fonque days before joining the quartet in 1998 — displayed an impressive stylistic range, whether delivering muscular, blocky chords or building delicate, classically influenced harmonies.

And while Faulkner may be the quartet’s newbie (he’s been a member only since 2009), he’s every bit the equal of his veteran bandmates, driving the band with unerring command as his propulsive playing provided a steady, often racing heartbeat. A late-set drum solo allowed him to cut loose, but I think I preferred those moments when he and edgy bassist Revis chased each other, playing irresistibly playful "try and catch me" rhythmic games that underscored the quartet’s collaborative nature.

It’s clear they all love playing — and they all love playing together.

Little wonder, then, that their new album (due this month) is titled "Four MFs Playin’ Tunes."

When these four are playin’ tunes (at least the way they were Saturday night), the Branford Marsalis Quartet embodies that paradoxical but unmistakable balance that’s the true hallmark of jazz: Loose, but tight.

Contact reporter Carol Cling at ccling@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0272.

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