(Marsalis Music/Okeh 88875011652)
I’m a huge fan of jazz’s iconic instrument, but even I balk slightly when faced with a solo saxophone album. The instrument sounds best cushioned by the chords of a piano, a bass line and a drum beat, doesn’t it? Or with the massed ranks of a big band in accompaniment? Well, yes, mostly, maybe.
So, solo saxophone albums are not for the faint-hearted, but the slightly less famous brother of Wynton has the kind of musical range and love of melody to reassure the nervous. And this album turns out to be a joy.
Branford begins on soprano with a piece from the original solo soprano saxophonist, Steve Lacy, and then covers everything from standards like Hoagy Carmichael’s Stardust (fruity tenor) to some of his own compositions and spontaneous improvisations. He even throws in an adaptation of a C.P.E. Bach oboe sonata. His witty altissimo comments have the audience chuckling, and his exploration of the blues in Blues For One has just the right amount of mournfulness mixed with just the right amount of swagger. And his composition The Moment I Recall Your Face could be a jazz standard or indeed the theme of a classical concerto – it is that strong. A contemporary classical work, Ryo Noda’s Mai, Op.7, has Marsalis bending notes, using multiphonics and echoing the tonal breathiness of the Japanese sakuhachi flute.
The sonic ambience of the cathedral is crucial – it has such reverb that Marsalis can create harmonies by linking a note onto the back of the one that went before and which is still echoing in the space. He uses that whole space to wondrous effect.
Branford has always had one of the most beautiful saxophone sounds in jazz, especially on soprano, but whatever the length of the brass tube, his playing is jaw-droppingly sure-footed and lyrical, and fed so generously by one of the most fertile musical imaginations in jazz. It’s all on display here, in the musical equivalent of a high-wire act – one without a safety net.
Incidentally, though Marsalis doesn’t play any Ellington here, the album title, as well as being apt in itself, is also a nod to the fact that this San Francisco church hosted one of Ellington’s Sacred Concerts.
- To buy Branford Marsalis’s In My Solitude: Live At Grace Cathedral go here.
Categories: CD review