Last night was the Branford Marsalis concert on the lawn of the DMA. We were almost late in getting there, but it was a bit more structured this time, as they actually had ushers to help us find our little patch of lawn. As a party of five (Halfling, Angie, Dingus, Cassi and myself), we felt fortunate to get as big a spot as we did.
Branford has spent a lot of his career in the shadow of his younger brother Wynton, who's garnered a lot more attention and recorded much more prolifically (though Branford did get a lot of face time on network TV during his two years as Kevin Eubanks' predecessor on the Tonight Show). It might be easy to forget that Branford is also a very fine player in his own right, but tonight proved the point beautifully. He may not have the immediately-recognizable sound of a Michael Brecker or a Joshua Redman, but it's a great sound nonetheless, and he does what he does extremely well.
Rounding out the quartet were Joey Calderazzo on piano (whom I've seen several times with Brecker), Eric Revis on bass and the always explosive Jeff "Tain" Watts on drums. (Incidentally, if there are any percussionists in attendance who can tell me what that weird asterisk-shaped cymbal was on his kit, please chime in.) Branford's talkback mic wasn't quite juiced enough, so I missed the titles of several of the tunes (it was also somewhat hard to hear Branford himself at times, as he moves about a lot when he plays and would have been better served by having a clip-on mic rather than a stationary one). I did catch that the opener was called "Mr. J.J." and the next-to-last tune was "Eternal" (which, yeah, did last a long time), and they closed with "It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)." They also played a few things from the group's recent CD done in tribute to the artist Romare Bearden, whose work was on display inside. Several of the tunes were of the modal variety (I instructed Halfling to steal as many licks as possible, since that's what we're working on at the moment), and, while Branford, and the group in general, played with a controlled burn most of the evening, they did cut loose near the end on a tune that featured a duel with a dreadlocked tenor player whose name never quite made it our way from the aforementioned mic. Tain got his big moment near the end as well, and his solo brimmed with both taste and energy.
It was great to see this group, even if perhaps this wasn't the ideal setting for hearing jazz from a serious listener's standpoint. I went to many of the free Thursday concerts that used to be held during the "Jazz Under the Stars" series, and it was exactly the same vibe. There's always a little too much of the "wine and cheese" crowd out there (we were laughing at the preponderance of lawn chairs and wine bottles and people who were way overdressed for an outdoor summer evening event). By that, I'm referring to people who were there more for the atmosphere than for the music itself. There was a lot of talking, though it didn't really drown out the music where we were. But I think Halfling nailed the concept when he said that it wasn't so much that people were talking, it's that they weren't listening. I totally agree. (Chris was there too last night, and he noted as I was writing this post that in the NYC jazz clubs, nobody talks. Ever. Amazing...)
Straight-ahead jazz does demand a lot of the listener; it almost dares you to make it background music (yes, this dovetails nicely with the discussion o' the week about music snobbery, and I have a feeling that the post that Dingus is working on right now will spawn another one from me, unless he steals all my ideas first). However, that being said, if people can derive a high level of enjoyment from it even without relating to it on its deeper level, then it's still all good. The DMA does a lot for local jazz by hosting live music in its atrium on a weekly basis, and their patrons generally have a strong financial base, part of which can (and obviously does) go towards the purchases of jazz CD's and tickets to live performances. If the wine-and-cheese crowd can enjoy the music, even as background music (so long as they don't interrupt those who are listening more deeply), and support it financially in ways that musicians often can't, then I don't begrudge them their place next to me on the lawn.
As I've said before, there really isn't an ideal venue for live jazz in the Metroplex at the moment. In fact, Halfling and I have seriously discussed opening a venue of our own someday, when we have the resources to do so. We'd have people on board with enough business sense to keep it from losing money, but it would be primarily musician-run, most definitely an all-ages club (a soapbox issue of mine, as you may know), and all about the music. This is probably waaay down the road, as we'll need some capital behind us first. (That being said, if you're reading this site and have a few extra hundred thousand bucks to throw around towards helping me and my best friend realize one of our dreams, gimme a shout and I'll give you my PayPal address. Heh heh.)
Oh, there was a slight downside to the evening in that a really drunk guy a few blankets away saw everyone's UNT shirts (yes, everyone but me, the one guy with a degree from there, was wearing one) and seized on the moment to strike up an interminable conversation. It's chronicled in Dingus's post about last night, so I'll direct you there rather than being the Department of Redundancy Department.
At any rate, I think Branford occasionally gets lost in the wake of some of the flashier players out there; tonight reminded me how enjoyable and important he is. My collection of his stuff has some big gaps in it which need to be filled soon. Maybe next time I can again hear him in a place that's all about the music, but this was a great way to spend a nice summer evening.
(Incidentally, the obscure title of this post comes from the fact that Branford's longtime nickname is Steepy; his newest CD is a compilation called The Steep Anthology.)
Marsalis on music: Branford was interviewed in yesterday's paper, and he happened to mention how, if you're performing in the South, people always talk when you play. Read the whole story here.
Debating dingosity: Dingus weighs in on the music snobbery issue.
(UPDATE: I just read the review of the concert in the paper today, and in the accompanying picture, you can see us! The big sculpture, the tall standing usher guy and the unique Murchison design on the back of Halfling's College of Music shirt are all readily visible. Maybe I'll circle us in red Sharpie and scan the thing and post it up here eventually.)