When asked the question, “What is jazz?” by an onlooker at a session before his Sunday night performance, jazz saxophonist Branford Marsalis retorted with another question.

“What is French? It’s a language. Jazz is the language of the people. And just like any language there’s a huge anthropological element to it.”

Marsalis certainly knows the idea of keeping jazz true to its roots. His brother, the famous Wynton Marsalis, has often been accused by various musical critics of failing to deviate from the traditions of the past. Yet Branford has a unique way of playing that not only emphasizes the rich jazz traditions of the past, but also has a unique flavor to it which helps to further jazz’s legacy.

Before Marsalis took the stage, pianist Joey Calderazzo opened with a solo piano number, playing the title track from his new album “Haiku.” Calderazzo, like Marsalis, has a depth of understanding about different genres of music, as “Haiku” seemed at times to sound classical, yet also at times sounded ferocious and more upbeat. At one point Calderazzo was bathed in a bright red light symbolic of the tempo and ambience of the piece.

Calderazzo retreated offstage, only to emerge moments later with Marsalis, Eric Revis and Jeff “Tain” Watts on bass and drums, respectively. Marsalis remarked that it had been a long time since they had played at UCSB saying, “The last time we were here, Jim Carry was opening for us.” Marsalis and the band then started into Paul Motian’s “Trieste.” Marsalis knows that the foundations of jazz aren’t the solos, but rather the entire synthesis of the parts of the quartet. Thus, Marsalis frequently retreated out of sight to let Revis, Calderazzo, and Watts show their chops.

During Watts’ song “The Mufkin Man,” the sound of drums and piano seemed to grow into an intense, almost cacophonous sound. Watts, for a moment, sounded like a heavy metal drummer. Then there was suddenly silence, which was broken by the low tones of Marsalis on the saxophone. Marsalis and his quartet had to confirm with one another several times during the show, causing Marsalis to remark, “We don’t have a set list.” The absence of a set program helped to further the idea of jazz’s spontaneity, and its flair for improvisation.

For the encore, Marsalis returned with a song dedicated to Watts’ departed dog, titled “Jay Jay Was His Name,” which further showed the technical prowess and musical ability that the Branford Marsalis Quartet possesses. He exited to thunderous applause, showing that jazz may be the one language that almost everyone can comprehend.