Live preview: Branford Marsalis
Take a deeper look at a celebrity saxist.
Fri Dec 16 2011
Photograph: Stephen Sheffield
Chances are your parents know who Branford Marsalis is. A trivial point? Maybe, but it's still not something you could say about many living jazz artists aside from Branford's trumpet-playing younger bro, Wynton. What can be frustrating is that Branford the celebrity—one fourth of a postcard-perfect Big Easy musical brood, featured commentator in Ken Burns's Jazz opus, and former sidekick to both Sting and Jay Leno—tends to obscure Branford the artist. This concert is a good occasion to celebrate the latter, a saxophonist who released Songs of Mirth and Melancholy, one of 2011's most captivating albums in any genre.
To peg that record—a series of duets with pianist Joey Calderazzo, who joins Marsalis for half of this performance—as jazz would sell it way short. Songs gets its mirth out of the way quickly with "One Way," the bluesy romp that opens the disc; from there, it's on to roughly 40 minutes of melancholy: seven extraordinarily patient, uncommonly moving examples of what you might call improvisation-driven chamber music. Sometimes mournful (Calderazzo's "La Valse Kendall"), sometimes eerie (Wayne Shorter's "Face on the Barroom Floor"), sometimes just plain wrenching ("Hope," also by the pianist), the set leaves you feeling spent, amazed and anxious to proselytize the virtues of the real Branford Marsalis.
Appropriately, the second pianist appearing alongside Marsalis at tonight's all-instrumental "A Duo of Duos" program is Harry Connick Jr., another player whose pop fame (see When Harry Met Sally) overshadows his hard-earned, wide-ranging virtuosity.
Follow Hank Shteamer on Twitter: @DarkForcesSwing