Branford Marsalis Quartet perform at Bardo Arts Center

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On Sunday, October 2, Western Carolina University’s Friends of the Arts hosted a special performance of the Branford Marsalis Quartet with special guest artist Kurt Elling. Held in the Bardo Arts Center, this unforgettable concert was open to the public and honored both the headline artists and the efforts the Friends of the Arts have put forward in supporting this campus community.

The Branford Marsalis Quartet, led by its namesake, was formed in 1986. Under Marsalis’ leadership, the group has remained successful (and its personnel fairly constant) since its inception. The quartet regularly tours nationally and internationally. In 2012, iTunes recognized the quartet’s album “Four MFs Playin’ Tunes” as that year’s best instrumental jazz album.

Currently, the group is manned by Joey Calderazzo as pianist, Eric Revis on upright bass and Justin Faulkner on drums. Branford Marsalis leads the group on tenor and alto saxophone. Each member hails from a unique musical background, bringing a distinct tone to the music created.

When the quartet appeared onstage, they were cool but intense. The group moved tightly, like a well-oiled machine, as they launched into a long piece full of improvisation. At its core, jazz is based on individual musicians embellishing melodies that have already been written or making up new ones on the spot. The bass player lays out a common line for the group to follow, and a piece is formed from there.

These skills take a lifetime and lots of practice to develop. It is rare to find a group of musicians that can work intensely close to each other, yet the Branford Marsalis Quartet manages to achieve that at the very highest level of performance. Passing around a shared melody and alternating solos, the audience could get lost in the complexities of its many variations. Often, the group appeared to have an almost telepathic connection to each other.

The quartet has developed a reputation of being a tightly-knit group and rarely features guest artists. On seeing them perform for the first time, it was clear that the task of keeping pace with this intense unit would require an exceptional artist. Kurt Elling certainly filled that role and exceeded expectations.

The Grammy award-winning artist has achieved international acclaim for his work both as a jazz vocalist and composer. According to Elling’s official biography, he has been top listed in the “Downbeat” Critics Poll for a total of 14 consecutive years. Eight of those years, the Jazz Journalists Association named him “Male Singer of the Year.” Elling has also been nominated for a Grammy award 12 times.

The second section of the concert opened with a collection of old classics. Elling demonstrated a remarkable ability to capture the style of former greats, notably Nat King Cole’s “Blue Gardenia.” The audience was instantly transported from the confines of the concert hall to another space entirely. Technical skill and stylistic flexibility made for a masterful performance.

The program extended far beyond Nat King Cole, however. There were fluid shifts across time and moods. From upbeat swing reminiscent of the big city, through laid back Portuguese verses evoking Brazilian beaches, to the show-stopping setting of Sting’s “Practical Arrangement,” Marsalis’s saxophone and Elling’s voice created an experience unlike any other.

The audience remained enthusiastic throughout the performance and even beyond. After the last encore piece and the final standing ovation, the hall reluctantly emptied out into the foyer. People swarmed toward tables where the quartet’s latest album, a collaboration with Elling, could be purchased.

Students were both amazed and inspired by the concert. Many of those in attendance were music students or involved with the arts. The opportunity to see performers of this caliber proved very exciting.

As one student, Holly Barnes, stated, “[the performance] was mind-blowing.”

Even students not involved in jazz were pleasantly surprised by the accessibility of the performance and skill of each performer.

Ben Grochowsky, a saxophone student in the School of Music, noted, “It was way cooler than I expected.”

More information about the Friends of the Arts advocacy initiative and the College of Fine and Performing Arts can be found on the university website www.wcu.edu. Concerts and theatrical performances are hosted in the Bardo Arts Center year-round. For more information about upcoming performances or ticket prices, contact the Bardo Box Office at 828-227-2479.