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Marsalis Quartet play it cool at Beiteddine.

Byline: Jim Quilty

Summary: It's a warm Tuesday evening in the inner courtyard of the palace that serves as a small venue for the Beiteddine International Festival, this night featuring the Branford Marsalis Quartet. Some festival loyalists and music lovers continue to file past the jazz instrument-strewn stage. Others try a little improvisation of their own.

BEITEDDINE: It's a warm Tuesday evening in the inner courtyard of the palace that serves as a small venue for the Beiteddine International Festival, this night featuring the Branford Marsalis Quartet. Some festival loyalists and music lovers continue to file past the jazz instrument-strewn stage. Others try a little improvisation of their own.

"... 1973. Baalbek, Miles Davis," one American-sounding gentleman says with gravitas.

His friend nods.

"He was so stoned, he couldn't do much."

"There'll be no work tomorrow!" remarks another American-sounding voice, evidently referring to Hizbullah's prisoner swap with the Israeli Army.

"I'm thinking about going to one of the rallies," another chuckles self-amusedly.

"I don't like his drum set, to be quite honest," you overhear a woman remark behind you. "The color."

Performance inoculates against eavesdropping.

Marsalis and his quartet are in the midst of a busy month of shows that took them to Rotterdam's North Sea Jazz Festival on Sunday and will find them in Tel Aviv on Thursday. No surprise, then, that all hands look a bit fatigued when they emerge and walk, businesslike, to the stage.

The 48-year-old horn player introduces his squad of veteran players - Joey Calderazzo on piano, Eric Revis on bass and Jeff "Tain" Watts on drums - then picks up his soprano sax and begins to play, tentatively at first, as if to check its range.

The other band members strike equally hesitant poses with their instruments. Watts stands, walks to the front of his kit and fiddles with his snare drum, though he doesn't lose a beat with the lone drumstick he's been using to keep time.

Staring fixedly into the space around two meters past the end of his sax, Marsalis continues his aural stroll through the register and up and down the scales. His band members fall in behind him like pebbles into a bucket, shifting the soundscape of this Chouf village into an echo of a jazz club a world or two away.

Pound-for-pound, the Branford Marsalis Quartet is the most high-profile international act Lebanon will see this summer.

The son of jazz pianist Ellis Marsalis, the New Orleans native is a member of the American jazz meritocracy. He's less tradition-obsessed than his equally renowned trumpeter brother Wynton, and has a more varied musical palette.

The saxophonist's repertoire includes "classical" as well as jazz and pop music (with his other vehicle Buckshot LeFonque). He's made a couple of dozen albums, played guest spots on dozens more with hip hop and pop artists.

His other three band members share that easy, off-hand competence with their instruments that places them among the top-rank session musicians in America. Calderazzo and Watts also are accomplished composers and their wares will be sampled this evening.

Ten minutes into the show, having apparently found their wind, the quartet swings into a second, more upbeat, number. Marsalis starts things off, then retreats to the back of the stage, leaving his band to stretch its legs a little more. It's a pose he'll strike many times over the course of the evening, eyes shut, occasionally nodding wordlessly to Watts or stepping forward to remark something to Revis.

Calderazzo's elastic keyboard leads the charge into the second number. The men do swing, but the band still doesn't seem relaxed in this setting. Straight-faced and wide-eyed, as though he's listening for the squeak in a squeaky wheel, Watts plays the band's barometer. It takes 20 minutes of playing for the drummer to smile.

Marsalis swaps his soprano for a tenor sax, then, and the quartet steps back in time to play "Gutbucket Steepy," from the horn player's 1989 album "Trio Jeepy." By now, the band has shrugged aside its exhaustion, or whatever it was that stiffened the first couple of tunes, and a restrained rapport becomes more evident among them.

The one-set concert leaves aside more daring and challenging work with which Marsalis' band has become known in the last few years, generally avoiding dissonance and atonality in favor of the melodic - such as the still-unnamed piano-dominated Calderazzo tune about half-way through the show. This is followed by Thelonious Monk's "Rhythming."

Marsalis and his players were coaxed back to the stage for a single encore - though some audience members weren't convinced of the need, having already made a dart for the door.

By the time the four men retired from the stage, it was evident that they had given perhaps 10 percent of what they're capable. Still, what they did give is likely to be some of the best jazz Beiteddine will hear for some time to come.

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Publication:The Daily Star (Beirut, Lebanon)
Date:Jul 17, 2008
Words:834
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