Branford Marsalis, dynamic sax-man


On Saturday, February 13 I went to check out Branford Marsalis with his quartet at the Chan Centre for the Arts.  It was a fantastic show.  I won’t write a review but I just wanted to write about a couple things that I really appreciate in Branford’s music.

I’ve heard it said that there are only two dynamics (volume levels) in jazz music: loud and louder.  I’ve experienced such groups both as a listener and as a participant as I’m sure most of us have.  Dynamics don’t seem to be a huge concern outside of the classical music tradition and may even seem out of place in lots of music, like rock or hip hop.  But they are integral to contemporary music for a good reason: they provide contrast and drama, and, therefore, musical interest.

This is one of the things I appreciate about Branford’s music and that I feel separates him from a lot of pro players out there: it’s dynamic.  There are volume contrasts within tunes and throughout the set.  Even on recording I’ve heard him turn away from the mic to lower the volume level as well as change the character of his sound through its placement.  Which leads me to another thing I like: he exploits timbral contrast.  On his up tempo numbers on tenor, for example, he has a rich full-bodied sound all throughout the range, very  much like a Sonny Rollins or Joe Henderson.  But on a ballad like Stardust – I think this was one of only a couple covers the band played – he scaled things down to a gentle, Coleman Hawkins-esque croon, what you might expect during a late, late night last call in the back of some 1940s speakeasy.

Another thing I like is that some of his tunes – not always written by him – bear classical music sensibilities and sophistication in terms of formal structure. Just listen to a track like the ballad “The Blossom of Parting” from his album Metamorphosen. The bass and drums provide colour and support but, if they weren’t present, this piece could stand as a chamber music duo for soprano saxophone and piano much like the late Romantic-influenced repertoire common for this combo and often studied in a university saxophone studio.  Or consider”The Last Goodbye,” another ballad on soprano from the same album.  I can imagine a string orchestra in the manner of Samuel Barber or Aaron Copland providing the soft moss on which this whole aria treads.

Branford and company rarely play in the head-solos-head routine of much of traditional jazz.  On the other hand, hardly any of their playing is reminiscent of the jarring, strident strains encountered in so-called free jazz –  you won’t hear squeaks and squawks, for example.  So, he’s neither in the traditional camp nor the avant-garde.  That suits me just fine, my friends.  One thing is certain: he sounds like an original.



Groovy jazz

Once upon a time there was a strong connection between jazz and dance.  Think ‘big band era.’  Nowadays, it seems the connection has been downplayed to a great extent – it’s all about the jazz club where people listen intently (or pretend to), whisper in conversation only when necessary, and clap when they’re supposed to.  I love it, yet I also love jazz that makes you want to at least bop along, if not get up and dance around.

I’m interested in picking out the groovy or dance-related gems from the repertoire of the ‘serious’ concert jazz musicians and highlighting these, attempting to show that the connection is not lost, it just may need to be rekindled.

An album I recently came across is by one of my favourite alto sax players, Kenny Garrett, and is called Pushing the World Away.  It reminded me that one of my all-time favourite tracks – going back to 1998 when I first heard it – in the “groovy jazz” vein (and just in general) is his composition “Wayne’s Thang” from his album Triology.  I challenge you not to move along when you listen to it – it’s awesome!  But in the interest of expanding on my ‘collection’, I’d like to point out his tribute to saxophonist/composer Sonny Rollins on the track “J’ouvert.” It’s along the lines of Rollins’ “St. Thomas” – another groovy gem – featuring a similar calypso beat.  Kenny has been quoted as saying:

…during one of my trips to Guadeloupe, I was composing an upbeat, happy piece about the Caribbean islands, and that made me think of Sonny. I call it ‘J’ouvert,’ which is the Creole name for Carnival. It’s my ‘St. Thomas.’ I hope Sonny likes it.

Here’s a link to an article about Kenny Garrett and this album Pushing the World Away:!/artists/Kenny-Garrett


Items crossed off

Premiered my Rhapsody for a Night Traveller (for solo saxophone) at the 16th annual West Coast Student Composers Symposium this past Friday at SFU.  I think I performed reasonably well and received some very warm feedback.

Yesterday I participated in another ‘premiere’ – the first group project for the Collaboration seminar.  The piece is a multi-screen video projection with a digital score and structured improvisation.  It relies on interactive software that enables the performers to map video loops to the screens and trigger them with audio – one pitch assigned to each video.  I composed the score and improvised on alto sax, accompanied by my friend Marcelo Vieira (not the soccer player!) on flute.  Marcelo was also responsible for the video art, creating the loops and software patch (with the assistance of SFU professor Martin Gotfrit in the context of a directed study). He recorded a friend in a series of short clips all featuring different movements in the tempo of the music.  Neil Qiu was the third collaborator from our class.  He took care of the stage and lighting design.

An assignment for my film music course is due later tonight and then, once a couple more classes are done, I’m in Reading Week break mode!