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.