Formally a 1920’s bank, Vault 350 is a very nice club in downtown Long Beach on Pine Avenue. Right before the stage, there is a dance floor, then three rows of tall tables and stools wrapped around the room. On the back wall is a bar. Upstairs in the mezzanine, there are booths where you could order dinner, but I don’t know how you could focus on the performance while eating.
On tour in support of their brilliant album, Braggtown, The Branford Marsalis Quartet performed two shows that evening. They got a late start for the 8pm show, so rather than have us congregate in the small alcove out front, a group of us were taken around back and up to taken to the VIP room above the mezzanine, a small lounge containing a bar couches and tables. I didn’t feel very important, but you could see the band playing. When they cleared the place out and released us, it was a mad dash down the stairs for the general admission tables. I commandeered a table that had yet to be cleared, dead center, three tables back.
Marsalis came out and got a big hand. He told the audience he was uncertain where the rest of the fellows were. He got a laugh, but the joke was true as we waited for a few moments before finally starting at a quarter to eleven.
The band was arranged on stage in a tight square, a formation ready for battle. Marsalis out front at the point. Pianist Joey Calderazzo and drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts were stage right and stage left respectively, and slightly back a couple paces. Back that same distance from them and directly behind Marsalis was bassist Eric Revis, so for those of us in the center, Marsalis obscured him.
They shot right out of the gate with the big, brash “Blakzilla,” drummer Watts’ nod to Akira Ifukube’s score to Godzilla (1953). His thunderous drums and the bass were the main focal point of the song. They launched ahead, driving, pushing each other. They didn’t make eye contact, just kept moving forward. Watts appeared to be a wild man, but his hard chaotic strokes had purpose.
They switched gears seamlessly into “Fate,” a Marsalis ballad he led with a sweet-sounding alto sax. It was amazing that the band was able to seemingly flip a switch, turning off all their power and energy, and play with such quiet restraint.
Marsalis switched back to tenor sax, and they followed with an upbeat number. After finishing his opening piece, Marsalis stepped aside briefly, as he did throughout the entire night when he wasn’t playing, sitting on a stool behind Revis, enjoying himself and the music as the band’s #1 fan. It is a testament to the men’s talent, the importance of the music, and Marsalis’ ego that he can give up the center stage so easily. When saying, “Branford Marsalis Quartet,” it is apparent that the emphasis should be on the word “quartet.”
When he stepped back in, it was for a duet with the bass. The drums joined in, and Marsalis retired again. Revis took the lead and sounded fantastic. Sitting so close, you got to see that he was making sounds with his mouth that he was creating on the bass. The quartet resumed, giving way for a brilliant Watts solo, then continued. Marsalis closed out the number.
The next song opened with a bass solo. Watts came in, providing soft cymbal flourishes. Marsalis, who alternated back to alto, and Calderazzo joined in. Marsalis stepped away again and Calderazzo took the lead.
The Branford Marsalis Quartet created an outstanding night of jazz. The music was as impressive to hear as it was to watch them create it. Each piece lasted about 15 minutes, so the entire set, including the encore, ran a little over an hour. That it ended was the only disappointment.
Photos of the performance can be found at the Vault 350 website under Galleries.
They go on tour in Europe for the month of March and then to the United States. The dates are listed at Marsalis’ website.