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Berklee scorched by Branford Marsalis trio

BRANFORD MARSALIS

With Robert Hurst and Jeffrey Watts.

At the Berklee Performing Arts Center.

Friday, Oct. 12 at 7:30 pm.

By DAVID ROTHSTEIN

BRANFORD MARSALIS, the 29-

year-old, New Orleans-born,

and Berklee School of Music-

educated member of the Marsalis family that is so much associated with jazz today, played an intense -- if short -- concert Friday evening to a vocal crowd at the Berklee Performance Center in Boston.

Appearing with bassist Robert Hurst and Berklee alumnus and consummate drummer Jeff "Tain" Watts, Marsalis put on an informal air from the start, presenting the audience with a healthy and relaxed sense of humor, along with the expected virtuoso work on the tenor and soprano saxophones. It was a show from the start: The audience knew it; the audience loved it.

After a short introductory routine by Marsalis in that N'Orleans (sic) accent ("This is a fun set, because we basically play whatever the hell we feel like. . . ."), the lights dimmed to a red and blue glow, and Watts began the busy drum solo that opens "Ramblin'," an old Ornette Coleman tune.

From the opening number it was apparent that the crowd was in for a treat: a drummer and a saxophonist, each excelling at his craft, competing, overlapping, calling to and fro, never standing the other up, but very, very busy. Very, very good.

After a Hurst solo to end "Ramblin'," Marsalis came back for a slow, then not-so-slow solo in a Thelonius Monk piece.

By the third number -- "The second cut off [Coleman's 1967 album] New York is Now," said Marsalis, adding that the trio had heard the song and learned it, but could not remember its name -- Marsalis and Hurst had their jackets off, the former's white shirt bright on a dim stage.

Watts began the second of many drum solos. First it sounded like Watts had brought out a pair of bongos, then came the frenzied, sticks-a-blur sequence.

As Watts' solo came to a close -- to boisterous applause -- Marsalis stepped into the light with an impish grin, and launched into a steamy, sensual rendition of the old Art Tatum standby, "Cocktails for Two," with a slow, determined Hurst bass below, and an even buzz from Watts' brushes-on-snare behind. The lights were velvet blue, the audience was swaying and calling out. Mid-tempo interweaving melodies rang out in the auditorium, along with the silent shadow in purple and black on the curtain behind the trio: the unmistakable silhouette of a man making love to his saxophone.

"Cocktail for Two" gave the audience everything it wanted: Marsalis slow, Marsalis fast; an entranced Hurst solo; Watts in the background.

Marsalis next introduced a song that the three had written, called "Wolverine."

There were only three instruments on stage, but an awful lot was going on musically in the uptempo piece. In the opening sequence, Marsalis, now playing the soprano saxophone, ran the gamut of his instrument's range in a single, long breath.

"Wolverine" is a hopping tune, the kind that makes your knees bounce and your head shake. The kind that had Watts working every part of his body, it seemed, to create intricate rhythms.

At song's end, Marsalis and Watts exchanged a teasing call and response, Marsalis offering little bits, and Watts eating them up with long fills. And then Watts let completely loose, to the delight of the loyal crowd. Arms, legs, and head shaking, Watts drummed so hard that he split a drumstick, sending a splinter in the air in Marsalis' direction stage left.

The man was flying.

And then, suddenly, it was over. Marsalis re-introduced his two sidemen and: "Thank you. Good bye."

The threesome walked off the stage, waiting the perfunctory two minutes while a standing ovation urged an encore.

Marsalis came out with another soprano sax-led, rambling tune. It was a bit disappointing in its standard flavor, but not enough to blemish a fine evening of music.