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Among Friends – Branford Marsalis with The Scottish National Jazz Orchestra Live In Perth 27.9.13
Date: September 29, 2013
There some names in jazz that carry with them innumerable expectations and assumptions. Unsurprisingly, most of them turn out to be wrong because we have come to believe the media streams before the evidence of our own eyes and ears. Branford Marsalis is one of those names, and his appearances with The Scottish National Jazz Orchestra (SNJO) will set the record straight for those smart enough or lucky enough to have had a ticket.
Most of the press hubris surrounding the family name quickly descends into a chaotic dissection of the jazz body politic and the fomenting of non-existent controversy. Fortunately, Branford Marsalis has friends and fans on his side who only want to hear him play and this is where he found himself last Friday night at Perth Concert Hall.
Better still The Music of Wayne Shorter provided exactly the sort of platform for the scope of his artistry while the SNJO directed by saxophonist and founder Tommy Smith, offered a superbly realized context for Shorter’s demanding music. Not content with that, they presented challenges to themselves and pearls to the audience with gymnastic arrangements provided by the likes of Manu Pekar, Mike Gibbs, Geoffrey Keezer and newcomer Jacob Mann.
Marsalis is famous for disregarding musical boundaries but is especially associated with classical settings of tremendously mellifluous and lyrically flowing melody. Indeed, Branford himself highlighted Shorter’s great gift for melody in a recent interview with Jazz House on BBC Radio Scotland.
But any expectation of reverential meditations and austere streams of consciousness were quickly dismantled with a two-fisted take on Speak No Evil. This friends, is live music. It walks slightly meaner streets than say Fifth Avenue or 110th Street, but it still reeks of cars, bars, hot sidewalks and the flow of all human life. Above all, it carries the whiff of opportunity and the musicians grab this one with both hands.
Their treatment of Nefertiti is esoteric and erotic but observed from a distance and at a remove. It’s like a visit to a modern museum of art in order to consider the exotic spirit of ancient Egypt. This is what great jazz can do for us. It takes an experience, a thought or an idea and transports it into our moment.
This is for Albert is lovely, levelling and loquacious. Yes or No is a Tommy Smith favourite that he first learned when he was 14 and is delivered in unflinching, punchy combinations of complexity. Witch Hunt, arranged here by Jacob Mann, is full of sinister allure, while Footprints leaves convoluted patterns in the sand, constantly doubling back and re-tracing its steps.
Marsalis is a physical presence onstage and an arresting performer who commands the attention. He says very little directly to the audience, but that is immaterial when his non-verbal communication is so rich. A simple raising of his eyebrows, or a tightening of his body tells you exactly what was tight, right and nailed down. There are moments when he plays as if he’s trying to force yet another brilliant idea right out of the top of his head, and he often appears inhabited by music that must at all costs be released.
The mesmerizing music of Wayne Shorter is handled with care by the SNJO like a set of valuable paintings and displayed to the best possible effect in absorbing arrangements. For me, this music depicts cities of the heart and mind, seen at night through a rain-drenched windscreen with the traffic light colours running like oils on water. The assembled ranks of horns come in and out of play like blinking, winking lights, off then on again, here, there and seemingly everywhere at once.
One highpoint among many is their treatment of Infant Eyes, a fantastic piece of music lovingly cradled by Marsalis that is worth the price of admission alone. Branford Marsalis is a purveyor of the clean, pure note, whether it is couched in complexity or stretched out in an elongated phrase. Each note matters deeply, and demands to be heard clearly. This piece, written by Shorter for his young daughter, underscores Marsalis’ observations about the composer’s way with melody and his own abilities as an interpreter.
Mike Gibb’s arrangement of ESP is instrumentally intricate and pianist Steve Hamilton gets to play some of the fastest runs I have seen east of Kilbride. If you can imagine Oscar Peterson played in the style of Eddie Van Halen then you begin to get the picture. Indeed, the rhythm section deserve special mention despite their rather modest demeanour. There is a wonderful solo by drummer Alyn Cosker who like bassist Calum Gourlay knows only how to do the right thing. Tommy Smith, as ever, leads from the front, and his own solos along, with some seamless exchanges, with Marsalis suggest that he is never anything less than on top form.
The encore to one to remember for we are given jazz like in its most essential guise, full of educated intuition, a bit of swagger and lots of style. As I write this, the concert series in Scotland is still to run its course so I won’t spoil the surprise for others. And if you missed it, well you missed it. Didn’t you?