Branford Marsalis in concert (2003)

This was written as an assignment for a jazz music class while studying at Williams College in 2003

The Branford Marsalis concert, which went up in Chapin Hall on Friday November 14th, was one of the most varied concerts I have had the benefit of attending at Williams, bridging the gap between two forms of music I enjoy very much: classical and jazz, while showcasing Marsalis’ own incredible range. Consequently, it was easy to compare and contrast music from different cultures: European classical, African-American, and Indian. The command all of the musicians had over their instruments, and the joy they seemed to bring to their performances, was infectious. In each of the jazz musicians, there were traces of great performers who had gone before them: Coleman Hawkins, Charlie Parker, Lester Young, Art Blakey. They were all amazing performers, making the experience very memorable.

The concert was structured first with a classical instalment from the Ciompi Quartet; followed by a semi-jazz/semi-classical – perhaps almost third-stream – middle section composed and conducted by Andy Jaffe; and concluding with a set from the Branford Marsalis Quartet in the jazz idiom. Even before the concert began, it was interesting to note that a structure – an acoustic shell – had been assembled onstage that was not usually present for Chapin Hall concerts, amplifying the acoustic sound on stage.

Nevertheless, the Ciompi Quartet began, playing Ravel’s String Quartet in F Major. The group comprised Eric Pritchard and Hsiao-mei Ku on the violin; Jonathan Bagg on the viola; and Fred Raimi on the cello. The piece struck me as straddling the classical Romantic and Modern styles, embodying both the Romantic quality of expressiveness but also the Modern drive toward experimentation with dissonance and the way in which instruments were played. Throughout the piece, Ravel used a great degree of dissonance, producing beautifully unusual chords. He also created contrast by varying a great deal between having the instruments traditionally bowed, and having the musicians pluck them, playing pizzicato. The Quartet was truly very accomplished in their playing, with a performance that seemed confident and seamless. The instrumentalists would steal in and out of the piece with sensitivity and style. It also helped emphasise the rhythmic emphasis and level of syncopation in jazz when compared to classical music. Ravel’s fourth movement did feature some degree of syncopation, but nothing to the degree of jazz or with the same emphasis on the music “swinging”.

The following piece, called Bridge and composed by Andy Jaffe, was comprised of three pieces. It was very aptly named, as the movements featured fusion between different kinds of music and instrumentation, combining them in unusual ways, with the Marsalis and Ciopmi Quartets playing jointly in a composition which fused European and African, Western music and Eastern music. “Theme for the New Sixties”, a piece originally composed for the Max Roach Double Quartet and premiered in 1981, featured the playing of Marsalis’ quartet (Marsalis on tenor saxophone; Joey Calderazzo on piano; Eric Revis on bass; and Jeff “Tain” Watts on drums), together with the Ciopmi Quartet. It was remarkable to hear instruments like the saxophone and a drum set combined with string instruments. At some points, it seemed like the two complemented each other well; at others it seemed as if the brasher jazz instruments overpowered and could not blend with the less strident classical string instruments. Regardless, Marsalis improvised furious melodic lines, sounding a great deal like Charlie Parker at times. The second movement, “Bridge”, added Indian instrumentalist Samir Chatterjee on the tabla. What was remarkable of Marsalis, who alternated in this movement (which was being premiered at this performance) between alto and soprano saxophone, is that it was not clear which of his solos were written and improvised. What was also interesting in this piece was the way that – contrary to the expectation set up in the programme notes wherein Jaffe indicated that it is the saxophone which begins to take on the characteristics of the tabla as the piece continues – the strings seemed to me to begin imitating the tablas most noticeably. The suite then concluded with a tribute to South African journalist and anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko in a piece of the same name. It featured two distinct sections, the first featuring layers of tone rows in compound time, and then a tonal and more accessible section, which Jaffe also used to punctuate solos. Amazingly, the solos were featured in the atonal section! Somehow, despite the atonal aesthetic, which always strikes me as more Avant-garde classical than jazz, and the difficulty of crafting a melodic line in this kind of context, Marsalis managed to play the blues in his solos, playing frenetically and sounding at various points like an embodiment of Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young and Charlie Parker. This is fitting with his belief that one must “climb the mountain” of the greats who have pioneered an idiom and of following in their footsteps.

Throughout all three movements, all of the instrumentalists seemed engaged and invested in the music, expressing this physically by moving their bodies with the music, nodding their heads, and exhibiting a kind of athleticism and physical involvement that was really stirring. The classical Ciompi players seemed the most physically inhibited and uncomfortable, yet conveyed a sense of enjoyment and engagement with what they were doing. Each instrumentalist held their own, with Marsalis’ pianist, bass player and drummer all showing themselves to be as much in command of their instruments as their high profile band leader. In his solo break, Watts played the drums with such force and fire that he seemed to be Art Blakey reincarnated. Before the end of the piece, there was an interesting interlude where al of the band members clapped a particular rhythm, and it was really interesting to speculate on whether or not this was pre-planned. After the clapping, the instruments all fell out, leaving the tabla to conclude the piece.

The Marsalis Quartet concluded the concert with three numbers and an encore. The first was a John Lewis piece called Concorde. Each of the musicians was featured in solos, and Marsalis was striking in how physically and emotionally involved he seemed to get during his soloing. There was a lot of space in his solos, recalling the playing of Lester Young. He would nod his head during his colleagues’ solos too, walking around and seeming to just be getting a feel for everything that was going on, sometimes actually verbally speaking with the other instrumentalists. The next piece was one composed by Marsalis called Eternal, which he dedicated to his wife. It was a beautiful and wistful ballad, full of feeling and a soft complex rhythm iterated by the drums, with gentle piano chords supporting Marsalis’ playing. Marsalis’ sound was full and bluesy, with lots of space between his phrases. Marsalis eventually fell out, actually going and sitting behind the other instrumentalists, perhaps listening as they executed beautiful dissonances together. When Marsalis re-entered, there was a moving kind of conversation that he had with the pianist in a subtle antiphonal pattern, before letting fly a flurry of notes which peaked before the return of the piece’s intro. Surprisingly, at the end of the piece, some people left, prompting him to quip that the reality of jazz was heavier than the idea of it. His soul was clearly heavily invested in his work. Their final pre-encore number was Mr. JJ or JJ Was His Name, a piece the drummer had composed for his deceased dog. Some people laughed – but being an animal-lover myself, I was moved by his impulse to compose something for his dog! Watts drove the piece with hot and passionate playing. It seemed like there were passages of collective improvisation, but it was difficult to be certain. The piece drove toward an extended and truly impressive drum solo from Watts, during which the other players walked around, drank some water, even talked among themselves while smiling and nodding at their colleague on the drums. Then Watts gave two beats on the drums, and they all came in again to conclude the piece. The band finished the night by playing the standard Cheek to Cheek, but with the well-known final phrase of the song’s chorus only becoming really accessible when the band seemed to satirically spell it out every so often after obscure and tonally complex passages very unlike the original piece.

The concert was really lovely, and was a wonderful and inspirational fusion of different styles of music. I hope to be able to see Marsalis in concert again some time in the future.

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