In My Solitude: Live at Grace Cathedral
SFJAZZ presented Branford Marsalis live at Grace Cathedral
Recording at Grace Cathedral, San Francisco, CA October 5, 2012
Recorded by Rob “Wacko!” Hunter
Mixing at Studio in the Country, Durham, NC December 15-19, 2013
Mastering by Greg Calbi at Sterling Sound, New York, NY January 29, 2014
Mastering Assistant: Steve Fallone
Produced by Branford Marsalis
Art direction: Steven Jurgensmeyer
Architectural rendering of Grace Cathedral by Shora Farahani
Photography of Branford by Palma Kolansky
High definition microphones were provided courtesy of Earthworks.
About the Album
In My Solitude: Live at Grace Cathedral
When Branford Marsalis was preparing for his first and so far only solo saxophone concert, aware of the need to secure and sustain the attention of his audience for the duration – “People don’t really focus on solos, even if they think they do; for the most part people relate to melody, and so do I, and to the mood of a piece, whether it sounds ‘happy’ or ‘sad’ and so forth” – he sketched out an open plan, with a few set compositions, space left free for pure improvisation, and a willingness to go with whatever the moment might provide en route. In the interest of melody and emotional anchorage he picked two balladic gemstones from the American songbook: Hoagy Carmichael’s ‘Stardust’ and Johnny Green’s ‘Body and Soul’. ‘Stardust’ was the second piece of the concert, as it is of this recording [CD/digital version only], and Marsalis played the rest of the event confident that he handled ‘Body and Soul’ just as he’d planned to, later in the program. It was only on listening to the playback that he found out he hadn’t played ‘Body and Soul’ at all, and instead had performed ‘Stardust’ twice.
Talking about the mishap later, he treated it as an episode of comical absent-mindedness, but it put me in mind of a Sonny Rollins concert I’d heard about in which Rollins came out with the band, played one tune and left the stage convinced that he’d played an entire concert. They had to find him backstage, tell him the news and send him back out there. You can imagine how it happened: he went into the music shorn of all other considerations, music being its own infinity superior and more vast than anything measureable by mere clocks, then came out of the music again, awakened; and it’s my fancy that something akin to that came upon Branford Marsalis in mid-cathedral: sheer music beyond name offering an entrance and its essence: an offer no true musician can refuse.
I’d guess that the audience at San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral – for a jazz musician a space doubly consecrated, since it was where Duke Ellington premiered his Sacred Concert in 1965, hence this album’s title’s inclination of its head in tribute – found it fascinating that Branford chose to play ‘Stardust’ twice, and many would have speculated, as have I, as to why and wherefore. On this disc, though, we’ve got only one ‘Stardust’ to work with, and our own limited imaginations; I’ve told you my version, maybe someday you’ll tell me yours. At the very least it shows us what a grip that gossamer composition can lay on you, whether you’re paying attention or not.
Speculation aside, I think you’re going to like this record. It is not an hour of elevated abstract art gallery tedium or an epic of narcissistic noodling. After the first few times, when might you want to go back to it and listen again? Presumably not when you want a rhythm section to reboot your body into a reinvigorated day but when, perhaps, you’ll seek out in the unquiet world a moment’s contemplation, a mirror in which your own true solo self might find its reflection and remember what it used to know but often forgets in the course of the allotted day.
Steve Lacy’s ‘Who Needs It’ begins things [CD/digital version only] with perky quirky scalar soprano pecks into the cathedral’s echosphere that seem to ask the air what musical possibilities might hang waiting in that enormous space, with these three horns, and just these people attending.
The next tune proposes rapture as a first answer.
Beside a garden wall when stars were bright and you were in my arms – I know the official version, but Louis Armstrong sang it in the past tense, so there it stays. Although ‘Stardust’ was composed as an instrumental and the lyrics are not Carmichael’s, the melody’s rhythm is speechlike, conversational, confessional, its cadences confiding and prosaic, so that the glorious melody itself almost seems an afterthought, offhand, casual, an amazing piece of a moment’s improvised luck. In this performance, which I think can stand without embarrassment in the company of classic versions by Louis Armstrong and Ben Webster, Marsalis plays with almost as much air in his tenor sound as Stan Getz used to put in his – out of respect and affection for the tune but also because he knew that tenor saxophone blown full and played with lots of notes would generate an obfuscatory rumble in the cathedral acoustic, bad for a ballad – and begins with a cadenza exploring and unveiling the tune’s materials in a long ruminative ramble, holding back climax and fulfillment until, finally, that one-off and inimitable melody collects all the notes in the right order and dawns upon the music like a revelation.
I think ‘Stardust’ is the star of this show but what makes the concert work is the overall shape and detailing of the whole, Carmichael’s classic ballad followed by the first of four improvisations, this one on alto, to abstract and complexify the musical space with increasingly mercurial runs spinning through the atmosphere and then, after a pause near the four minute mark, a balladic turn that suspends slow chords like auroras in the echoes, along with so much of what makes life worth loving: intelligence, tenderness, taste, appreciation, beauty and grace as the music moves through a stately C.P.E. Bach sonata movement for solo oboe, played on tenor here, flawlessly faithful, with small embellishment only toward the end; another slow tune to remind us that in recent years Branford’s ballad playing has become a special treat; a rapid-fire abstract-boppish alto improvisation to ionize the air with the electricity of its thought and execution; Ryo Noda’s ‘MAI’, through-composed including the multiphonics, its shakuhachian sonorities providing the most abstract-sounding music of the concert, then two improvisations that detail and elaborate its aftermath.
The mostly meditative ‘Improvisation 3’, played on tenor, features a moment people are sure to remember: just past the one-minute mark, passing fire-engine sirens doppler downward outside the cathedral, haunting downcalls within the piece’s tonal ballpark and ending in a honk, to which Marsalis responds with an echoing acknowledgement of the real world in which someone’s home out there might be in jeopardy and might find rescue – which points to the social, vernacular nature of jazz and makes me wonder if this Odysseus would have answered the sirens’ song had they happened by during the Bach poco adagio. The fire-engine episode is succeeded by ascending scalar lyricism, a return of the opening material, and heads toward a convincing finish through elaborate cadential filigree. In a way, the soi-disant improvisations together provide the developmental guts of the concert sequence: they forecast and recall, link mood to mood, poke into corners unexplored by the composed pieces, open doors for a peek into adjacent rooms. They enlarge the music’s breadth and breath, they oxygenate its mind and heart.
The next improvisation [CD/digital version only] reestablishes a stronger tonal center, a pentatonic return to earth from the hazards of space: a modal vamp, with chromatic divagations and foot-tapping rhythm: much of it could be played atop a rhythm section – although Marsalis steps away for a stretch of virtuoso arpeggiation—as still moreso could the one-man shuffle blues with which our adventurer brings his long ship back to harbor.
You’d think the blues would do it, but for me the homecoming is perfected, endsquawk and all, by the unplanned encore. Pausing in the wings in need of a tune, Marsalis remembered Wayne Shorter playing ‘Thanks for the Memories’ to close a Weather Report concert, and he turned to the song Carol Burnett used to end her television shows with: ‘I’m So Glad We Had This Time Together’. I don’t think there’ll be much doubt or disagreement about that, in San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral, or here at home with you and me. - RAFI ZABOR