Branford Marsalis, In My Solitude: Live at Grace Cathedral

Britt Robson

By Britt Robson

on 10.21.14 in Reviews

The oldest son in a highly disciplined jazz family, Branford was once the irreverent Marsalis, enjoying pop-culture notoriety via his Tonight Show band leadership and tours with Sting, not to mention helming kitschy stylistic hybrids like Buckshot LeFonque. But that was decades ago, and In My Solitude feels like the opposite end of a pendulum swing into august musical statesmanship. It is a solo saxophone performance — variously on the tenor, alto and soprano horns — in the cavernous San Francisco church where Duke Ellington recorded his Sacred Concerts a half-century ago.

Meticulously planned and paced for dignified virtuosity

It is evident that the program was meticulously planned and paced for dignified virtuosity. Marsalis opens with Steve Lacy’s “Who Needs It?” and then delivers the hoary standard “Stardust” with an elegant aplomb reminiscent of Ellington’s favorite altoist, Johnny Hodges. The first of four planned slots for spontaneous improvisation ensues, played with restraint gilded by mastery; followed by a sonata originally written for oboe by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, and a Marsalis original, “The Moment I Recall Your Face,” which mates the tempo of a classic ballad with the pure melody of a folk song.

The highlight of the concert is “MAI” by Ryo Noda, which Marsalis performs on alto in the spirit of Japanese music for bamboo flute. It contains a seamless run of sustained notes that gradually dissipate into silence and then rise, later followed by a section of low flutters and rapid modulations. Even during the multiphonics, the tone of the horn is pure, the fades and uptakes controlled yet lyrical, the mood enraptured for eight-and-a-half minutes. Marsalis cleanses it with his final two improvisations (flirting at one point with a passing siren outside the church) before closing with a crowd-pleasing “Blues for One,” and then, as an encore, a flashback to pop culture with “I’m So Glad We Had This Time Together,” from The Carol Burnett Show.