Branford Marsalis to play Grace Cathedral

Publication: San Francisco Chronicle
Author: Jesse Hamlin
Date: August 26, 2012

Branford Marsalis decided to quit his coveted job as the musical director of “The Tonight Show” with Jay Leno in 1994 after playing Jacques Ibert’s concerto for alto saxophone with the San Francisco Symphony under the baton of another far-ranging jazz musician, Bobby McFerrin. The performance pleased the audience and critics, but not the artist.

It was dreadful, man. I hated the way I played,” says Marsalis, a forthright and funny man who’s unsparing in his praise for things he admires and blunt about those he doesn’t. “My tone was not good and my technique was shabby. I had to choose - I was either going to be a musician or stay in show business. After that concert, I decided I wanted to be a musician.”

Nearly 20 years after the Ibert kicked his ass and sent him to the woodshed, Marsalis - who’d become famous in the 1980s playing brilliant Milesian60s music with his prodigious brother, Wynton, and bringing improvisational fire to Sting’s post-Police band - is playing with the technical mastery and emotional maturity that produces great music.

You hear some on Marsalis’ last two recordings: “Songs of Mirth and Melancholy,” a beautiful duo recording with the prime pianist Joey Calderazzo that features songs by him, Calderazzo, Brahms and Wayne Shorter, and the just-released disc by the Branford Marsalis Quartet (of which Calderazzo is a longtime member), “Four MFs Playin’ Tunes,” which is full of fresh, stirring and swinging music.

You won’t hear any of those tunes at Grace Cathedral Oct. 5, when the 30th annual San Francisco Jazz Festival, which commenced Saturday with Esperanza Spalding at Oakland’s Paramount Theatre and gets cooking next month, presents Marsalis solo in the Gothic grandeur of the Nob Hill cathedral.

The saxophonist - the latest in an illustrious group of jazz artists who’ve performed at Grace since Duke Ellington helped consecrate the cathedral in 1965 with his Concert of Sacred Music - will play a mix of composed and improvised music. He’s thinking about some solo works written for clarinet and oboe by C.P.E. Bach and others, solo saxophone pieces by John Corigliano and Ned Rorem, and a version of “Body and Soul” that will explicitly pay tribute to Coleman Hawkins, the towering tenor saxophonist whose 1939 recorded improvisation on the classic Johnny Green ballad set the standard for jazz soloists.

I thought it would be fun to play it exactly like him,” says Marsalis, who turns 52 today, a wry cat who has always embraced his influences - “the only things bereft of influence are infants and really sad musicians” - and thinks far too much has been made about musicians needing to find their own sound, “as if it’s hiding in the bushes and you have to find it, like an Easter egg hunt.” Marsalis scoffs at jazz musicians who talk about their concept. He mentions a writer who was at the sessions when the quartet recorded “Four MFs Just Playin’ Tunes.” The guy kept asking what the concept of the record was. Marsalis kept saying there wasn’t one, it was just four motherf- playin’ tunes. That became the title.

Marsalis brings up the famous recording of alto saxophonist Paul Desmond interviewing the peerless Charlie Parker and asking what he was after. “We’re trying to play music as cleanly as possible, and play something people dig,” said Parker, or words to that effect. Marsalis is down with that.

Marsalis, who made his debut with the New York Philharmonic two years ago, won a 2010 New York Drama Desk Award for the score he composed for the Broadway revival of August Wilson’s “Fences” and performs internationally with orchestras, chamber ensembles and his quartet, has never played a solo concert before. He’s glad he turned down the chance a few years ago.

Emotionally mature
“I have way more musical information now. I know how to use it now, and I’m more emotionally mature,” says Marsalis, who will play tenor, alto and soprano. The prospect of playing solo for 90 minutes - anywhere, let alone in a soaring cathedral with a seven-second echo - scares a lot of musicians. Marsalis says he has no such trepidation. “I know what I’m doing now.”

He’s talking by cell phone from the Raleigh-Durham airport in North Carolina after flying home from Toronto (the quartet had a gig at the Brandon Jazz Festival in southern Ontario). He’s waiting to be picked up by his wife, Nicole, a New Yorker he dragged “Green Acres-style,” as he puts it, from the big city to Durham a decade ago. Tired of the “false competition” of the New York jazz scene and the crush of a place where fans boo losing hometown ball teams, the native New Orleanian wanted to move to a southern town where the pace was slower, but he could still catch an international flight. He and Nicole have two daughters, Peyton, 11, and Thäis, 7.

Practicing constantly to play the music of Mihaud, Copland, Debussy and Villa-Lobos with top classical ensembles has made him a better jazz player, says Marsalis, a man of catholic musical tastes who has performed with everyone from Davis and Sonny Rollins to Dave Matthews and the Dead.

I’m more apt to try things because I know I can do them technically. I can a hold a note for 25 or 30 seconds and the tone won’t break down,” says the saxophonist, a fluent improviser who has learned to say more with less, focusing more on dynamics and tone color and less on the fast bravura playing of his youth.

No cringing
“Four MFs Playin’ Tunes” is the first of Marsalis’ many recordings that he can listen to and not cringe. He actually likes it.

Unlike his other records, “I’m OK with this one being compared to all the great records I grew up listening to - the Miles and the Coltrane and the Sonny records. Everybody in the band is making music the whole time; there’s not one moment where somebody is saying, ‘Hey, look at me.’ It’s awesome to get to that place where everything is in the service of the song.” {sbox}

Branford Marsalis: 8 p.m. Oct. 5. $30-$50. Grace Cathedral, 1100 California St., S.F. Full details on the 2012 S.F. Jazz Festival lineup:, (415) 398-5655.

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Submitted by Bobby on August 27th, 2012 — 10:09am