Branford Marsalis Quartet
Duke’s Baldwin Auditorium, Durham
Friday, Jan. 30, 2015

Injecting fresh blood into an established group like the Branford Marsalis Quartet carries inherent risk. But done with the proper care, it can be invigorating, as I heard in late January during the group’s first concert of a two-night-stand at Duke’s Baldwin Auditorium. With regular drummer Justin Faulkner away on a Wilmington movie set, and bassist Eric Revis playing New York City’s Blue Note, Marsalis turned to two young recruits to carry the load: Rudy Royston, who regularly drums with Bill Frisell, and the 20-year-old Russell Hall on upright bass. Marsalis’ longtime collaborator, Joey Calderazzo, handled the piano.

Greeting his physical therapist in the audience, Marsalis revealed that he’s been in aggressive rehab following knee replacement surgery in December. Looking dapper nonetheless in a patterned jacket of camel and brown tones, he carried out his own tenor and soprano saxophones. The slight hitch in his stride conjured a school principal—maybe a little overworked, but still in charismatic command of the assembly.

“Thank you very much. It’s great to be here, playing at home,” Marsalis said, gazing at the mix of colonial plaster garlands and modern wood swooshes that adorn the recently renovated Baldwin. “Nice building.”

The quartet came out hungry, incisors flashing, on a Calderazzo tune called “The Mighty Sword.” Relatively elfiin next to Marsalis’ lanky frame, Calderazzo is a kinetic player. As his hands wander the keyboard, his legs and feet bounce, shoulders rotating like a flamenco dancer’s. His body rocks from side to side on the bench. There is a certain liveness to the refurbished hall, which is so well-suited to acoustic chamber music; it took my ears a few minutes to adjust.

The audience settled in with a ballad, “Maestra” by Revis, which the band began with a spooky recitative reminiscent of Eastern European modernism. It became clear that drummer Royston can play smart on the slow stuff, too, adding both pathos and wit. Marsalis’ soprano emerged with teasing lyricism, his usual technical elegance on fine display. Thelonious Monk’s “Teo,” a mid-tempo song with a Latin tinge, pushed Marsalis to tenor, trading eight-bar solos with Royston. “A Thousand Arms” was next, another ballad that hit like soft waves on sand. Royston’s clever cymbal work stood out. The Denver native told me afterwards that he uses mallet and hand-damping techniques derived from his training as a classical percussionist.

“We appreciate your support. We don’t have a set list, as you can see,” Marsalis said one hour in, as he called the next one: a Valentine of a standard by the Gershwin brothers. “Our Love Is Here To Stay” took on a jam session quality, which brought out the best in young bassist Hall. Everybody hushed for his solo, as Marsalis changed a tenor reed and vocalized in small shouts. It was the evening’s most easygoing number, the kind of moment you hope for when you buy a ticket.

A smooth segue fed into Calderazzo’s latest, a frenetic tune so new it doesn’t even have a name. “The crazy one?” Calderazzo said, when I asked him about it backstage. “That’s only the second time we’ve played it.” The quartet came most alive here, benefitting from the spontaneity of a song that was new enough for all four to be creative.

For an encore, Marsalis gave us what we’d all been awaiting: a taste of Old New Orleans. UNC-Greensboro faculty and saxophonist Chad Eby popped out of the audience to sit in, which the two had hooked up shortly before. “Chad texted me and said, ‘I’m playing with you tonight,’” Marsalis told me in the green room. “I texted back, ‘OK. “St. James Infirmary.” See you at the encore.’”

To set the mood, Marsalis told the story of gambling, dissolution and heartbreak behind the folk song, which describes a woman’s cadaver laid out on white marble “so cool, so calm and so fair.” Calderazzo approached a stride piano style, while Royston woke the dead with martial drum rolls. Marsalis intoned the melody’s familiar lament on soprano, and Eby supplied fills on his unlaquered tenor. It finally came down to the two friends exchanging trills, giggles and a few bars of Chopin’s “Funeral March.”

Marsalis’ relishing of tradition makes it clear that his real idols lie in the past. Or, as he put it, “I want to be that guy, who if they put me in a time machine and dropped me back in 1935, they’d say, ‘You play OK.’”