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Branford Marsalis: Recording, Live at Grace Cathedral
Publication: San Francisco Classical Voice
Author: Jeff Kaliss
Date: December 19, 2014
Atop San Francisco’s Nob Hill, Grace Cathedral has long welcomed pilgrims of fine music as well as worshipers from the Episcopal Diocese of California. From the recorded sound of it, the solo concert presented there by veteran reed player Branford Marsalis, in October of 2012 was a spiritually enhancing experience transcending orthodox musical sects.
Marsalis, eldest of the four musical brothers in that New Orleans dynasty, hosted a delightfully ecumenical program that took in the American songbook, a TV show theme song, rhythm and blues, the austere borderland of New Music and jazz, and a sonata by C.P.E. Bach, as well as his own through-composed pieces and four diverse improvisations.
Along the way, Marsalis showcased his soprano, alto, and tenor saxophones, but coaxed unfamiliar sounds from the instruments, in the process making consciously varied use of the echo qualities of the spacious structure, and spontaneous use of unanticipated phenomena.
On his “Improvisation No. 3,” for example, Marsalis mimicked the venue’s echo by repeating certain phrases of his invention. Midway through the session, a siren passing on California Street made itself audible, acknowledged with a honk from the tenor sax.
The high-wire thrill of performing solo without any other instrumental support was matched by manifestation of a unique sort of freedom. On Hoagy Carmichael’s “Stardust,” absent the time-keeping rhythm section with which his jazz fans are accustomed to hearing Marsalis, the saxophonist was free both to move through extended impressionist passages before stating the familiar melodic theme, and to elasticize the lines of that theme to his heart’s content.
To my ears, this resulted in an organic, monophonic formulation much closer to how we all carry our favorite songs around in our memories.