REVIEW: Branford Marsalis solo at Bath Abbey (2016 Bath International Music Festival)

Branford Mardalis in 2011
Photo credit: Darlene Susco / Creative Commons
Branford Marsalis solo
(Bath Abbey, Bath International Music Festival, May 21st 2016. Review by Jon Turney) 

Bath Abbey, with its expanses of stained glass and astonishing fan vaulting high above, invites a particular kind of performance. It's not the ornateness, but the atmosphere - it's one of those spaces that offers a larger kind of silence. That, and the fat echo, suits Branford Marsalis'intentions well. He has long had an affinity with slow tempos, and sought a focus on melody. His solo performances, on his customary tenor and soprano and, unusually for him, alto saxophone, give free rein to both impulses.

They were woven into a programme of classical pieces played more or less straight, all pure tone and clear articulation, jazz standards, and one-off improvisations. It was intimate - unamplified, the saxophone sound accompanied only by the light clacking of keys and the occasional audible breath - and intense, but in a curiously relaxed way. In this space, Marsalis used lots of pauses at the end of a phrase to savour the echo, which allowed both performer and listener to prepare for the next one. Not subtle but, moment to moment, reliably effective.

There were no announcements -  a rueful "sorry"after a single fluffed note was the only word to the audience - but over two sets we heard a great range of music. There were classical pieces on soprano sax, an Ellingtonian ballad on tenor, some Bach (I think), a bebop-tinged tenor improvisation that leant toward Sonny Rollins, and new improvisations on each of Marsalis' other horns. The most arresting of those began with long tones on alto, moved into more urgent mood, with flurries of notes ascending into the far reaches of the Abbey, and came to an emphatic conclusion with some controlled foghorn blasts. 

Marsalis’ achievement, aside from keeping us all rivetted with solo horn playing for 90 minutes or so, lay in blending idioms as they suited the moment - from those pure tones to a full range of jazz vocabulary and effects, finishing with some good old-fashioned gutbucket tenor blues. There was a jazzy encore, too. I won't name it, in case he chooses the same tune again in London tomorrow, but it was, let's say, appropriate for the space.

Branford Marsalis plays solo in London at Union Chapel on Monday May 23rd and on Tuesday in Norwich Cathedral.

LINKS: Podcast interview with Branford Marsalis from 2013
Review of Branford Marsalis Quartet at the 2014 London Jazz Festival

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