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Two months before he becomes a household word as Jay Leno's band leader on the new Tonight Show, saxophonist Branford Marsalis and his trio have spread their enthusiasm through Utah.

Together with bassist Bob Hurst and drummer Jeff "Tain" Watts, Marsalis kept a sold-out crowd at Kingsbury Hall enthralled Friday night with brilliant improvisations and delightful interplay.The three musicians, at times playing seemingly divergent melodies, were in fact engaged in two hours of high-level communication, keenly aware of each other and eager to either guide or expound on each other.

One reviewer recently likened a session with the trio to giving a basketball to Michael Jordan and two of his teammates on a wide open court and telling them to just have fun. The result is a constant, reckless improvisation that's energizing to watch and hear.

This apt analogy describes the show in Utah, which may be the last one here for awhile, given Marsalis' hectic television schedule. But he told the Deseret News before the show he plans to come back.

"As long as you've got my homeboy (Utah Jazz player Karl Malone, who, like Marsalis, is from Louisiana) and snow in the mountains, I'll come back to Utah," he said.

The trio started with two pieces from its latest compact disc, "The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born," playing first "Roustabout," then "Gilligan's Island."

Both were fast-paced numbers featuring impressive solos by Hurst and Watts. In fact, Watts' brilliant and playful drum work was an adhesive for the group throughout the show.

They then played "Cocktails For Two," a slower number that allowed Marsalis to show off with full-toned, sustained notes and that featured him on a long, impressive and unaccompanied introduction.

It was the most enjoyable piece of the evening. Hurst and Watts started a finger-snapping routine between beats, and soon the entire crowd had joined in.

Marsalis' devotion to jazz was apparent. It is a devotion built on and refined by years of studying everything from opera to music of the Far East. He spent a year as the central figure in Sting's rock band, emerging with this observation given to a reporter about a year ago on the difference between jazz and rock musicians:

"Rock 'n' roll musicians are purists because they can't play anything else. If you really want a limited view on music, listen to them. Playing with Sting I play rock 'n' roll, but I do that with jazz sensibility. The notes that I choose are impossible for the rock musician to hear, choose and play. The reason I choose them is because I've played jazz."

Despite the name of Utah's pro basketball team, such jazz treats are rare in this state. Marsalis, whose personality and wit appear tuned and ready for the television spotlight, started the show by announcing, "The real Jazz is now in Utah."

He also was quick to respond to shouts from the audience, including one from a woman who asked "Where is Kenny?" referring to pianist Kenny Kirkland.

"Kenny hasn't played with us for two years," he said with a smile. "I'm glad to know you follow us closely."