'Well-Tempered' Marsalis brings Baroque classics to BU
Publication: Press & Sun Bulletin
Author: Chris Kocher
Date: October 22, 2014
When most people think of Grammy Award-winning saxophonist and composer Branford Marsalis, the first thing that comes to mind is jazz — and rightly so.
After all, he shares his birthplace with jazz music itself — New Orleans — and he grew up in a talented musical household. His pianist father, Ellis Marsalis Jr., earned critical praise for his modernist take on the distinctly American genre and, as an educator, taught others how to swing. It’s no surprise that Branford and brothers Wynton (trumpet), Delfeayo (trombone) and Jason (drums) took up the family business, too.
However, he says, “classical music has always been an interest for me. Performing it is something that has developed over the last 10 years, but I’ve been listening to it since I was a kid.”
What he needed was the opportunity, and that developed organically out of his 2001 album “Creation” with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, which featured works by Ravel, Milhaud and Debussy. Since then, among various jazz projects, he has toured the United States with the Philarmonia Brasileira (performing works by Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos) and performed with the New York Philharmonic.
His latest collaboration is a 20-city tour with the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia dubbed “Marsalis Well-Tempered,” which comes to Binghamton University’s Anderson Center on Tuesday night. The program focuses on Baroque masterpieces from the 17th and 18th centuries, transcribing oboe or violin solos for saxophone on pieces by Albinoni, Bach, Purcell, Handel, Vivaldi and others.
His latest album is a more singular affair: “In My Solitude” (to be released, coincidentally, on Tuesday by OKey Records) features a recording of a solo performance in San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral.
In an interview from Los Angeles last week, Marsalis spoke of the challenges of classical music versus jazz, as well as some of the best advice his dad ever gave to him.
QUESTION: What qualities do classical music and jazz share, and how are they different?
MARSALIS: I think the qualities that all styles of music share are that people like songs with a good beat and a strong melody, regardless of the genre.
In classical music, there’s a level of precision that can’t be ignored, and in other styles of music the lyrics are sometimes more important, the melody is really catchy, and the lack of virtuosity isn’t an impediment. In classical music, you have to be able to play your instrument very well, but you also have to be able to play music very well, and it’s hard to combine both of those things.
In that way, it’s very similar to jazz, because there are a lot of guys who play their instruments really well but their music thing is lacking. I’ve never been in a situation where I’ve had to practice as much and still at the end still have a greater possibility of failure that with classical music.
Q: When you’re here at Binghamton University, it’s part of a new tour with the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia performing Baroque music. How did that collaboration come about?
MARSALIS: It started out in a conversation with my former agent, Mark Maluso. He broached the idea of me playing soprano (sax) in a Baroque setting. I got excited at the possibility and started buying records, and I flew to London to take some lessons with Stephen Preston, who’s a Baroque flautist. I did all of these things even before the tour was confirmed, because if it was going to happen, I wanted to be prepared — and if it didn’t happen, I get the reward of learning a new style of music and working on it.