Saxophonist Branford Marsalis has been focusing on ballads of late -- "Eternal," his new CD, is devoted to them. But that doesn't mean his quartet is stuck in low gear these days.

At Blues Alley on Saturday night, the band contrasted lyrical and sometimes haunting arrangements of old and new tunes with tumultuous rhythms, amusing pop allusions and brash harmonic flights. "Gloomy Sunday" conjured Billie Holiday's tortured soul, yet there was also evidence of Thelonious Monk's wit. A string of surging choruses swiftly called to mind John Coltrane's legacy.

The Holiday-inspired interlude found Marsalis in particularly expressive form, playing tenor and favoring long tones and spacious phrases. After drummer Jeff "Tain" Watts created a lush backdrop with mallets and cymbals, the tempo fell into place and Marsalis soulfully explored and embellished the melody with the help of pianist Joey Calderazzo's poetic touch. Though no other tune proved so absorbing, "The Lonely Swan" was alluring in its own right. Composed by Calderazzo and enhanced by his flowing single-note lines, the piece showcased Marsalis's lithe, insinuating soprano sax over a bobbing pulse.

The New Orleans reedman and his rhythm section, rounded out by bassist Eric Revis, bracketed these ballads with sharply contrasting performances. Monk's "Nutty" was appropriately lighthearted, especially when Marsalis punctuated the riff-like melody with quotes from familiar tunes. The playful spirit ultimately gave to "The Impaler," a Watts composition fiercely driven by the rhythm section and a bold reminder of the band's ties to the Coltrane Quartet.

-- Mike Joyce