The double bill saxophonist Branford Marsalis and trumpeter Terence Blanchard shared at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall on Saturday night easily lived up to expectations — unless you were expecting the New Orleans natives to match wits at some point. There was no pairing of headliners, no good-natured sparring, no surefire encore. Yet there was no shortage of fireworks, either.
Marsalis and Blanchard led their respective groups through invigorating back-to back sets, laced with challenging arrangements and virtuosic turns. Soulful interludes surfaced amid the scorching crescendos, though the bandleaders weren’t always at the center of attention.
Marsalis seemed eager to showcase his longtime pianist Joey Calderazzo — a smart move despite some technical glitches. Calderazzo offered two self-penned tunes that displayed his formidable technique and imagination. His opening — as yet untitled — contribution set the bar high for the evening. After Marsalis brashly illuminated the spiraling theme on soprano sax, bassist Eric Revis and drummer Justin Faulkner fueled Calderazzo’s sweeping dynamism, which, in turn, inspired a series of bracing, flat-out choruses from the quartet’s leader.
Marsalis’s command of the soprano was impressive throughout, especially during the performance of Calderazzo’s “Hope.” Shaded, accented and to some extent orchestrated by Faulkner, the spiritual ballad demanded a lot from Marsalis, who responded with elegantly sustained phrases and a rich, expressive tone. On tenor, the reedman often projected a full-throated, vibrantly rhythmic sound, evoking shades of Sonny Rollins during piano-less trio passages and when the band brought fresh exuberance to Thelonious Monk’s “Teo.”
Blanchard kicked off his quintet’s set with a vividly colorful array of Crescent City trumpet sounds — smears, growls, pinches, slurs, clarion shouts. His repertoire, which includes numerous film scores, is so rich and multifaceted, that his performances invariably leave something to be desired — in this instance, something large scale. Instead, Blanchard celebrated small combo chemistry, with tenor saxophonist Brice Winston and drummer Kendrick Scott generating plenty of hard bop intensity during the opening performance of Blanchard’s “Wandering Wonder.”
The spotlight often shone on the young, Cuban-born pianist Fabian Almazan, who combined a percussive attack with dashing chromaticism when the tempo was swift, and bassist Joe Sanders, who helped personalize the band’s engaging take on Charlie Parker’s “Au Privave.” “We just want to have fun,” said Blanchard early on, and most of the tunes, including “A Time To Spare,” offered listeners an exhilarating ride.