“We were butcherin’ up the Sonoma Country Club today,” said Branford Marsalis, before his band had played a note at the Napa Valley Opera House. “We were playing so bad we decided to let some girls play though so they wouldn’t have to look at us. So we invited them to the show tonight… and there they are, sitting right there!”
It was a warm, welcoming way to start the show—Marsalis shouted out, by first name, a long list of friends in the audience, “and all you people we don’t know, we’re glad you’re here too,” he continued. “This is just a hang. A big hang.”
And then the band catapulted into “The Mighty Sword,” and man, all hell broke loose. Marsalis led a solid seven-minute block of quick-paced, rapid-fire jazz, churning and whirring over the angular bass of Eric Revis and the interwoven lines of pianist Joey Caldarazzo, and thwomped the whole thing to a sudden stop. I tilted my head back and laughed in awe.
Yes, awe. The unbridled propulsion with which the quartet is playing these days comes from young drummer extraordinaire Justin Faulkner, who Marsalis hired away from his previous job at Benihana wielding ginsu knives. Or at least it seems that way. Faulkner is a dizzying presence at the kit, sounding like two drummers at once. He tackles the entire drumset, beating toms and cymbals and stands and whatever’s handy, and has a polyrhythmic thrust that calls to mind Elvin Jones. Did I mention he’s only 21 years old? Get used to the name, folks: Justin Faulkner.
Older track “In the Crease” that was the set’s highlight, with Caldarazzo’s solo building to such a climax that he leapt off the bench. This was followed by Faulkner’s shining moment, a blistering solo that was just plain unexplainable—except to say that contrary to popular belief, dropping a pile of drum sticks on the stage can be a percussive moment.
All through these moments, Marsalis himself was fine with sitting out behind the band to let them shine. That’s the right thing to do with this band; they’re remarkably tight, and even with Faulkner, who’s relatively new, they listen intently to each other. The Marsalis quartet has an album coming out next month, Four MFs Playin’ Tunes, and based on the songs played tonight, it’ll be excellent. “Teo,” the Thelonious Monk composition, magnified the playfulness of Monk’s melodic conception; “Maestra” was a nice, plaintive ballad.
A set-closing “Don’t Mean a Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing” caused calls for an encore, and suitable “52nd Street Theme” was a fun, frivolous, lively closer. It’s a thrill to have jazz of this caliber played in the small confines of the Napa Valley Opera House, and I doubt many who were there will forget it anytime soon.