A solo saxophone recital may not be the typical jazz lover’s idea of a good time, but if it is Branford Marsalis playing that saxophone, minds may well need to be changed. In My Solitude: Live at Grace Cathedral, the album released last October, has the virtuoso taking center stage at the venerable scene of the famed Duke Ellington Sacred Concerts for his debut as a solo artist.
Certainly one expects technical perfection, and Marsalis delivers. But technical perfection alone may not be all that satisfying. Technical perfection is often mechanical and uninspired. Playing a lot of notes at warp speed will not always cut it. There must be more; there must be creativity in the moment. There must be an emotional investment by the artist. Marsalis understands what he needs to do and clearly he is up to the task.
Creativity in the moment is featured in four improvisations, the third of which has the artist working with a siren that happens by during the performance. Each of the four gives Marsalis a chance to show his different sides—melodic, meditative and technically proficient. He can evoke laughter in the audience with a witty programmatic moment in his own composition, “The Moment I Recall Your Face”; he can turn to a more abstract construct in his translation of C. P. E. Bach’s Sonata in A Minor for Oboe Solo Wq. 132: I. Poco Adagio to the tenor sax. He can even take the abstraction up a level with his version of Ryo Noda’s MAI. Op. 7.
In many respects, for me at least, he is at his best with his “Blues for One.” It’s a rousing blues number that concludes the concert, before he comes back for an unplanned encore, which, hard to believe, is the theme from The Carol Burnett Show, “I’m So Glad We Had This Time Together,” a theme he ends with a squawk and a whimper. Other highlights are the set opener, a soprano sax take on sax master Steve Lacy’s “Who Needs It,” and an exciting version of the classic tune “Stardust” (Hoagy Carmichael/Mitchell Parish).
Perhaps the depth of Marsalis’s emotional investment is measured in an anecdote relayed in Rafi Zabor’s liner notes. Originally Marsalis had planned to play two classics—“Stardust” and “Body and Soul.” It was only when he heard a recording of the concert played back that he realized that instead of “Body and Soul,” he had played the Carmichael/Parish piece twice. We only get it once on the album, so we can only lament the loss of his “Body and Soul.”
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