In Solitude - Live at Grace Cathedral
Branford Marsalis - 2014
In the past I have expressed my opinion, humble though it is, when it comes to Branford Marsalis. I have mentioned before in my belief that this side of John Coltrane’s passing, he has been the most talented, unique, honest and inspiring saxophone player on the scene. He’s a giant whose everyday steps are yearly expeditions for the common player. The mere fact that In Solitude is Branford’s ‘first-ever unaccompanied performance’ (which by the way is now my new favorite way of saying, ‘solo album’), is reason enough to be expectant of greatness of a different sort. It won’t ruin the surprise by saying that such expectations are met, surpassed and made to look foolish by the heights that Marsalis reaches. Although Branford cuts a solitary figure in this performance, in essence, working as an unaccredited partner is his choice of venue. San Francisco’s, Grace Cathedral – famous in its own right as the home of Duke Ellington’s 1965 recording, Concert of Sacred Music – is the perfect setting for Branford as he masterfully manipulates it’s natural acoustics - on many occasions harnessing the beautiful and expansive reverb of the cathedral to create harmonies and dissonance with himself, apply an almost delay effect at the culmination of passages, and through careful interplay with his microphone, create an even more effective scale of dynamics beyond what he naturally is capable of. As well as being the master, partner and pupil to his music, he plays these roles as well with his venue, and the sonic effects are astoundingly beautiful and intensely diverse. This idea of diversity is also represented in Branford’s decision to bring along three horns to his performance - soprano, alto and his more familiar tenor saxophone – his equal mastery of all three meaning his performances throughout the evening are all as genuine and skilled as each other.
For such extraordinary praise upon which I will bestow on In Solitude, it is rather interesting to note that it opens in a rather remarkably ordinary way. The first two tracks (Steve Lacy’s ‘Who Needs It’ and the American standard, ‘Stardust’ by Hoagy Carmichael) are what you would expect as obvious choices to play by a solo saxophonist. Although the choice in music is considerably standard fare, the way in which Branford expresses through them is anything but so. He manages to make the expected more beautiful than we could have imagined and more perfectly prolific without convolution playing a role in his playing. His work on ‘Who Needs It’ is in contrast to how Lacy usually performed it. Branford uses the soprano sax to escape past Lacy’s minimalistic approach to the song by adding ever escalating layers of expansive ideas but without ever losing sight of the harmony or of the context in which he is playing. The Cathedral setting was never going to allow Branford to totally dispose of all boundaries in his playing and as ever he embraces and transforms himself to not just conform to his environment, but to totally dominate it by reaching past what is allowed, knowing always when to decrease his push as the music bends to the point of breaking. The exhilarating ride of skillful and harmonic engaging runs that fall to the forefront of ‘Who Needs It’ are superbly contrasted in Carmichael’s classic where Branford’s tone is the star. He manages in sound alone to capture the innocence of love, and in feeling, the bluesy swing of the 1920’s when ‘Stardust’ was originally recorded. His breathy vibrato that features at the end of ‘Stardust’ is as beautiful as the first time you hear Ben Webster playing a ballad.
The opening two tracks of In Solitude, although not off the charts in comparison to other solo performances of them, introduce the theme of the evening. Though it may be unintentional, it’s the most gratifying aspect of Branford’s playing – as it always is. Marsalis is not just in the Cathedral to perform. He’s not there to relax, regurgitate an hour of everything he’s practiced behind closed doors, and certainly he’s not there for the applause. Branford is there to work, to find something new, to try and stretch himself past what he knows regardless if it means some notes are flubbed or some runs are just a little off. It’s actually those moments where that which is played isn’t as he wants it, that he endears the audience to his process as he acknowledges his ‘misses’ with sounds of slight frustration or going after a passage again in varied repletion to find what he’s looking for. It’s this dedication to the music, to constantly strive for something in the moment that makes his playing limitless, unique, ethereal and fearless. The audience is privy to his immense effort and the journey he is taking with the music. His playing always, in every passage has purpose. There are no notes played simply as filler or for show. There are no choices of melody or harmony exposed to merely impress. His every performance from start to finish has the true sense of the immediate moment, with each individual moment in relation with the other and leading him and us somewhere so often magical, purposeful, new and gratifying. Branford has always been an advocate in emphasizing the importance of playing what the music allows you to – not to superimpose your own wants on the music. To be able to play what the music asks of you, you have to work for it and that he does. During one moment on the album he even verbally acknowledges his effort in finding the right way to play the right passage of music. It’s during ‘Improvisation No. 2’, after a series of demanding runs he calmly announces, ‘Took me a while to find that one’. Improvisation is not just a total act of randomness without a destination and no player in the community is better equipped to example this than Branford.
There are four, free improvisations on In Solitude and it is when we get to the third track, ‘Improvisation No. 1’, when Branford’s performance really opens up. Even though we know these moments on the album are immediate and of the moment, the perfection of each one makes it hard to believe that they weren’t sculpted in preparation beforehand. Indeed, so much of what goes into improv is crafted in the practice shed , but Branford’s ability to put it altogether (technically, melodically and harmonically) as though it all has always been so, is a skill that defines him well. His alto work on ‘Improvisation 1’ is a gesture towards his well roundedness as a musician. On display is the sort of technical skill more prominent in modern classical solo pieces and this combined with his harmonic Jazz sensibilities make for a rich blend that accustoms the ears of the audience to where he will go next with his performance.
As the concert continues Branford opens up a new path to venture down with his next piece. C.P.E Bach’s (1714-1788), ‘Sonata in A minor for oboe, Wq. 132: 1. Poco adagio’ should comes as no surprise as a choice of Branford’s to perform. He has of late been a huge proponent of classical music - leading symphony orchestras and encouraging his students to study the genre. It is the first of two classical pieces on In Solitude, and this particular piece is played with the importance of ceremony and true to what’s written on the page. It’s exact in its nature with application of freedom rightfully put on hold. The piece is beautiful as written and Branford makes the right decision to express it on his tenor saxophone. The second classical piece is the antithesis of the Sonata. ‘MAI, Op. 7’ (1975), by the Japanese composer, Ryo Noda is one of the most challenging avant garde pieces written for alto saxophone in the classical genre. It is littered throughout with a barrage of extended techniques (multiphonics, pitch bending, alternate fingerings, etc.) and played without expression, when being up against these extensions of the saxophone, can be a horrid expedition for player and audience alike. It is a testament to Branford’s study of the genre and skill beyond his Jazz chops that he manages a performance that is void of flaws and expressed divinely. As can be expected his choices of works in the classical genre are extremely bold and most importantly lacking in naivety and that which he fights against, pretentiousness.
Featured on the album are also two original tunes by Branford. ‘Blues For One’, the penultimate track of In Solitude is your typical 12 bar blues performed with Branford alternating between playing the melody and a bass line on the tenor sax. We are taken on a journey of the blues and that experience greatly outweighs a need for it to be a platform for an all out Branford’s blues skill set. It’s tasteful and timeless. For his other original piece, ‘The Moment I Recall Your Face’, he employs his soprano whose tone, the most regal of the saxophone family, is called into action. Here Branford combines elements of harmonies found more often in classical music with his ability to perform the melody with slight Jazz inflections. The song and the performance are a wondrous brew of both worlds, this giving it a sound that is cemented in posture but emotionally in flux. Throughout it Branford seems to be asking questions - at times having an answer while also having moments where there is a sense of being unsure.
‘Improvisation No. 2’ is an outburst of intense continuous runs, each one so in sync that a metronome could be put to each passage individually. We get the feeling right that from the outset, Branford and his alto saxophone are after something and he’s determined to get to the heart of it. Not even the sound of a car horn bleeding into the cathedral from outside can make Branford blink as he immediately incorporates it into his journey. He scoffs at times at his attempts to reach for some ideas, again showing us that he has a direction and all these runs have a destination.
The most remarkable and prodigious moment of In Solitude comes with Branford’s tenor playing on, ‘Improivation No.3’. It is thee most hauntingly beautiful piece of solo work I can say I have ever heard. This minor-tinged, slow paced descriptive and colored work of art was truly created only for that cathedral and designed only for that moment. It’s as though every note played did not have a purpose until that evening and in relation to that improv. The wailing of emergency vehicle sirens from outside the cathedral try to infect the performance but instead are used by Branford to inspire his playing. We can only assume that without that moment of brilliance, where he might have gone would never have been as heavenly as where he ends up. I have been a Branford fan for close to two decades and this is the moment I will keep coming back to when wishing to celebrate his career. No fancy Coltrane-esque runs. No harmony bending extractions. Every note is ‘right’ for that specific second of time it is played during. Everything decision made in answer to what the moment asks for – a watershed moment in his career and in this year of Jazz.
Fittingly, Branford ends the evening with, ‘I’m So Glad We Had This Time Together’, from the Carol Burnett show. The spirit of the piece and touching playing on it is a gratifying way to end his night but it is the audience that the title of the song belongs to.
Since 1975, Keith Jarrett’s, Koln Concert has been considered with great argument the most influential if not at least the most successful Jazz solo album of all time. I too have favored this opinion and up until In Solitude, considered it still to be so. Now however, above and beyond the music of that night in Koln, I consider it to be so only due to its history – the years that have aged it past being that of just an album. Given time, In Solitude will surpass Jarrett’s legendary art of that evening. Given time, Branford’s work will become known as that above all other solo work.Andrew Scott Back
Andrew Scott ranks this as the
#1 favorite album of 2014