“Jack Baker” from the album Braggtown
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“Blackzilla” from the album Braggtown
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New Orleans-born, N.Y.C-based saxophonist, composer, and bandleader Branford Marsalis is a Grammy award-winning American treasure and one of the most respected and versatile players in the contemporary jazz world. Since making a splash alongside trumpet-playing younger brother Wynton Marsalis in the 1980s, he’s dabbled in pop and rock music, funk, hip-hop and classical styles — from playing alongside Sting and Widespread Panic to tackling Copland concertos and Stravinsky suites.

His latest studio effort — a dynamic seven-tune collection titled Braggtown (Rounder) — finds the ever-evolving sax man in a more intense and progressive state of mind compared to his more contemplative 2004 release Eternal and the reworking of John Coltrane’s legendary “A Love Supreme” on the 2002 effort, Footsteps of Our Fathers.

Braggtown is boisterous … and it’s not,” says Marsalis. “There are a several ballads on the album, too. I don’t think that people who’ve been following us would be surprised by the material on the album, although they might be surprised by how good it sounds, compared to some of the others. It’s less reckless-sounding. It’s tight. It maintains a level of intensity and it’s freewheeling.”

For the better part of two decades, Marsalis has stepped in and out of the bandleader role — a task that came naturally to him initially, but required a bit of careful honing along the way.

“It’s always been easy for me to be a bandleader,” he asserts. “I have a knack for managing people’s personalities. Duke Ellington had a book titled Music is My Mistress, which was really informative because a lot of people in his bands were total nut jobs. What I got from the book was that, despite pop culture’s insistence to the contrary, God didn’t dole out talent to the most pious or the most hard-working; sometimes he doles it out to the most petulant, cantankerous, and insecure — and you have to know how to deal with these people in order to get the best out of them. I always want to be associated with the most creative people, despite their personalities.”

After studying at Southern University and Berklee, Marsalis toured Europe with the Art Blakey big band in the summer of 1980 (playing baritone sax), played three months with flügel master Clark Terry, and then spent five months playing alto with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers in 1981. He made his strongest impression on the ’80s American jazz scene with stellar performances on three albums made with Wynton — 1981’s Wynton Marsalis, 1983’s Think of One, and 1984’s Hot House Flowers.

Marsalis’ current quartet (featured on Braggtown and on recent tours) includes longtime drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts, a brilliant timekeeper who played with Branford on his earliest recordings. The sax player’s musical relationship with Watts has been one of his strongest.

“Tain has been consistently the most creative and dynamic drummer in jazz over the last 20 years,” says the sax player. “There are others who swing well and are creative on their instrument, but I think the combination of the swing, creativity, and the volume, and intensity — you’d be hard-pressed to find another like him.”

Pianist Joey Calderazzo and upright bassist Eric Revis — both of whom joined in the late ’90s — complete the lineup.

“I love how Revis plays the bass,” boasts Marsalis. “I like how courageous he is. He plays with a technique that’s 60 years old. Musicians don’t play like that any more. Many bass players play with amps now. With Revis, there’s a thump and a tremendous amount of volume coming from the bass. It aids that high intensity we have. It’s impossible to have a full band sound consistently powerful if the bass player’s sound is that thin-ass bass sound through the small amps. There’s gotta be a thump to it.

“Joey was playing with Michael Brecker for a long time,” he adds. “He was a logical replacement for Kenny Kirkland [a longtime Marsalis collaborator who passed away in 1998]. He plays with an advanced harmonic imagination and a high level of intensity. He fit in with the style of what we were doing after about a year or so.”

Braggtown is high-energy stuff, from the wild upbeat tracks to the slow-rolling ballads. It opens with a bouncing track in 6/4 time titled “Jack Baker,” an aggressive jam with heavy piano and wild sax runs reminiscent of that John Coltrane sound. The Watt-penned “Blakzilla” was inspired by Akira Ifukube’s music from the 1953 Japanese horror film Godzilla. Revis’ tribute to the legendary chief who fell victim to Westward expansion is titled “Black Elk Speaks.”

“Honestly, it’s much harder to play a personal ballad than it is to play the fast, complex tunes,” Marsalis admits. “To be able to work on your tone and play those long phrases without your tone wavering — that’s the hard shit. In jazz, people seem to have just stopped playing simple music. It requires a different way of listening. It requires an exploration more into the melodic purpose of music as opposed to the harmonic purpose of music.”

The quartet plan to play it by ear on ChazzFest’s Stadium Stage on Saturday, pulling from their 80-song repertoire. Expect an expressive set of high-energy music no matter the tempo or tone. It will surely be a memorable concert for any music fan. —T. Ballard Lesemann

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