Three numbers into a brilliant 90-minute set Friday night, Branford Marsalis had a confession to make: The saxophonist and the rest of his jazz quartet hadn't played together since September.
Their so-called rust hardly showed, but the foursome's considerable musical skills account for only part of the reason. The rest of their formula reflected what Marsalis' brother Wynton once famously told documentary master Ken Burns: At its best, jazz amounts to an ongoing dialogue among musicians, with their instruments as the voices.
Branford and his mates gave the Holland Performing Arts Center audience a master class on the subject. They played only eight identifiable pieces (including Duke Ellington's “It Don't Mean a Thing” as the encore), but as Marsalis explained: “All we do is take our time. No rush.”
The song preceding his comment, “In the Crease,” illustrated exactly what he meant. Using his tenor sax, Marsalis stated the opening theme softly but firmly, then improvised ever more intensely before turning over his musical podium. Pianist Joey Calderazzo likewise started quietly and slowly became more insistent as drummer Justin Faulkner and string bassist Eric Revis joined in.
At their dynamic peak, the quartet suddenly backed off. Then Marsalis returned to the microphone, briefly restated the quiet opening theme and soon engaged in a thrilling duet with Faulkner, who answered the sax's brief, repetitive outbursts with rapid cascades of cymbal crashes, snare shots and tom-tom fills. Their reward: the first of three standing ovations from the audience.
Marsalis' artistry, which he demonstrated on both soprano and tenor sax, has grown exponentially over more than three decades in the jazz world. He also understands well that his bandmates deserve their turns in the spotlight: When a bandmate's solo turn came up, he retreated to the back of the stage.
Calderazzo's piano improvisations drew from a variety of influences. One would feature quick-ranging keyboard journeys with his right hand. Another drew on Dave Brubeck's predilection for chord-based solos. But he was at his most impressive on two numbers in which his shimmering chords and arpeggios evoked the impressionist style of Claude Debussy while remaining very much a jazz solo.
Revis' bass summations were often rapid but highly articulate, speaking as crisply in his instrument's lower register as bassist/vocalist Esperanza Spalding did in the high register in her Holland Center concert earlier this fall.
Meanwhile, Faulkner effortlessly alternated a frantic pace on the quartet's fast numbers with precise brush and mallet work on the slow ones — especially at the start of “A Thousand Autumns,” which featured the night's sweetest ballad riffs.
The quartet closed with the immortal New Orleans standard “Tiger Rag,” one of the most-recorded jazz songs in history. Marsalis teased his colleagues, none of whom came from the Big Easy as he does: “We'll play it until we get it right.”
Honestly, no one in the audience would have minded if they had.