In St. Pete, Branford Marsalis Quartet defies jazz structures and truly entertains 1,052 at Mahaffey Theater

01.13.18
Branford Marsalis
Creative Loafing

I had to blink a few times to make sure it was real: the dimly lit Mahaffey Theater stage backed by a plain black curtain, acoustic instruments clustered intimately together in the center.

Yes, this was going to happen. The Branford Marsalis Quartet had come to St. Petersburg to perform in one of our elite concert halls on Thursday night. Such occasions are few and far between. Jazz never gained much traction in Tampa Bay - which is to say, it has almost always been a surefire money-loser. After game attempts by a few club owners (whose places ultimately closed), promoters and performing arts halls, they effectively threw in the towel some years ago.

So jazzionados such as myself know not to miss these unicorn sightings. Branford Marsalis is booked? At the Mahaffey? Better show up; it could be quite some time before an artist of his caliber performs here again.

The quartet entered from stage right - sharp-dressed men in suits. Marsalis, who plays tenor and soprano saxophones, leaned on the piano, greeted the crowd, introduced the band, and bantered a bit. The charming and witty host.

He and his cohorts proceeded to do something that's borderline sacrilegious for an acoustic jazz combo. They entertained the people. We're not talking about entertainment so cerebral that the only suitable reaction is to close your eyes and bob your head. This was instrumental music that sent tingles down your spine, made your jaw drop; put a smile on your face and a chuckle in your throat; it also, at times, conjured waves of melancholy. Tunes ended and elicited full-throated cheers rather than polite applause and knowing nods. Hell, Marsalis and company even moved a few crowd members to testify, church-style. "Play it, man!"

I'll let you folks befuddled by jazz in on a little secret: Even hardcore jazzbos find that their attention wanders during a set. I can only speak for myself - but my mind didn't wander Thursday night. I stayed locked in for 90 minutes. That's a long performance by acoustic jazz standards.

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