There was no doubt that when Jeff "Tain" Watts left the Branford Marsalis Quartet in 2009, they would take some time to regroup. They recruited then 18-year-old drummer Justin Faulkner, confusing many fans. But Marsalis knew what he was doing. Faulkner makes his BMQ debut on the no-nonsense Four MFs Playin' Tunes. The program features seven originals and two covers, recorded over a couple of days in 2011. There isn't any conceptual bent to what's here; the definition is in the humorous title -- four jazzmen investing themselves fully in a set of diverse compositions, focusing on the details of collective conversation, interplay, harmony, and improvisation. Faulkner has a fine balance of skills: he's physical, he possesses a forcefulness that drives this group, but he can also dance with real finesse. Joey Calderazzo's sprightly "The Mighty Sword," which has a slightly tropical Latin tinge, features excellent dialogue between Marsalis' soprano and the pianist in the high register. Faulkner pushes from the outside with frenetic snare, cymbal, and tom-tom work as bassist Eric Revis swings like mad underneath. Another highlight is the bassist's nearly mystical ballad "Maestra," which moves from speculative to an outright flow of elegance and emotion without ever losing its restraint. The cover of Monk's "Teo" is more about rhythmic dialogue than anything else. There is little harmonic revelation here, but the joy the group displays in playing its changes and the slippery series of extra and syncopated beats Faulkner slides in make it delightful. Marsalis' "Whiplash" is exactly what it claims to be: a driving, knotty hard bop tune with excellent tenor, piano, and drum solos. There's also a longer reprise of Calderazzo's "Endymion" from his and Marsalis' 2011 duet album, Songs of Mirth and Melancholy. With labyrinthine lyric exchanges by the pianist and Marsalis' tenor, the rhythm section -- in a dazzling intricate display of its own -- moves it beyond its classical leanings and into more adventurous terrain. Revis' bass here is so illustrative that Calderazzo could have gone off in any direction from the wide-angled melody. The saxophonist's "Treat It Gentle" is given gorgeous, straight-ahead blues ballad treatment with tasteful, lightly swinging solos; it stretches to over nine minutes. Four MFs Playin' Tunes is a solid return by the BMQ. Rather than offer anything new, they instead focus on re-introducing the band as a creative unit whose capacity for musical excellence is undiminished.
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AllMusic Review by Thom Jurek