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For the first time in 15 years, Grammy Award-winning jazz saxophonist Branford Marsalis
has returned to classical music for his new Sony Classical recording
Creation (SK 89251). Joining Marsalis on Creation is the conductorless
American chamber orchestra Orpheus in performances of music by early
20th-century French composers, works that resonate with the then-new
phenomenon of American jazz. Marsalis’ new recording attests to
the range and ambition of his restless talent, which has made him,
raved the Chicago Tribune, “one of the premiere jazz saxophonists
Creation presents a rare opportunity for Marsalis to step into the spotlight in the classical repertoire. The small body of mainstream classical music for saxophone that does exist is dominated by these French composers, bridging the gap between the Romantic and Impressionist styles with uncommonly beautiful and often quite complex music. Though none of these works tries to be jazz, each has an expressive freedom that blooms in the hands of a performer like Branford Marsalis.
For a sax player – who rarely gets big, gratifying chances in classical music – this kind of encounter is a liberating experience. “There are a lot of classical pieces for saxophone, but there are not a lot of those pieces that I would enjoy playing, “Marsalis says. “They become exercises. They show off the technical possibilities of the instrument, not the beautiful possibilities. The French were liberated in their thinking, and they did not hear the saxophone as a bastard instrument. They believed in things that are beautiful, and the beauty is undeniable in this music.” Several selections on Creation were specially arranged for the recording.
The disc also features Marsalis in performances of Jacques
Ibert’s Concertino da Camera for Alto Saxophone and Orchestra and
Darius Milhaud’s Le Creation du Monde (The Creation of the
World), both sleek, contemporary pieces that seem tailor-made for a
jazz virtuoso’s exuberant sense of style. Marsalis acknowledges
the experience of playing jazz in his unique collaboration with
Orpheus. “It’s kind of like jazz, when jazz is good,”
he says. “Everybody has a say in the course and direction of
where the music goes, with the understanding that what matters is the
music. When everybody’s on that page – it’s
This spring, Marsalis will tour the U.S. with Orpheus, playing
selections from Creation, reaffirming the remarkable reach of his
musical interests, from pop to jazz to classical. Though he is best
known for his jazz recordings, Marsalis has continued to explore
classical music at the same time. In recent chamber-orchestra
performances of the music of Villa-Lobos and other composers at the
Ravinia Festival, he played, in the words of the Chicago Tribune,
“with a subtlety of tone and phrasing only the finest
interpreters can attain.” In another chamber-ensemble performance
at this year’s Bridgehampton Chamber Music Festival, Marsalis
“demonstrated unparalleled sensitivity and intelligence,”
according to critic David Swickard.
The New Orleans native was born into one of the city’s most
distinguished musical families which includes brothers Wynton, Delfeayo
and Jason, and the family patriarch, pianist/music educator Ellis
Marsalis. In 1984, he released Scenes In the City, his first album for
Columbia Jazz, which began his thriving jazz career. He also made
successful forays into the pop world with artists such as The Grateful
Dead, Sting and Bruce Hornsby.
Branford Marsalis won his first Grammy in 1993 for Best Jazz
Instrumental Performance, Individual or Group, for his album I Heard
You Twice the First Time, and another in 1994 (Best Pop Instrumental
Performance for “Barcelona Mona,” a single he recorded with
Bruce Hornsby for the Olympics in Spain.) His 1993 trio album,
Bloomington, was hailed as a landmark in contemporary jazz which Bill
Kohlhasse of the Los Angeles Times called “revealing and
beautiful in ways only the best improvisational music can be.”
The 1994 debut album of Buckshot LeFonque, Marsalis’ unique
amalgam of jazz and hip-hop, similarly broke new musical ground.
In 1995 he was nominated for yet another Grammy, in the category of
Best Pop Instrumental Performance, for his stirring rendition of
“The Star-Spangled Banner,” once again teamed with Bruce
Hornsby for the soundtrack of Ken Burns’ memorable PBS series
Baseball. The Dark Keys (1996) was a further step in Marsalis’
jazz explorations, while a second Buckshot album, Music Evolution, was
released in 1997.
Marsalis’ most recent jazz recording Contemporary Jazz –
which just won the Grammy Award for the year’s Best Jazz
Instrumental Album – has been described as his greatest work to
date, with Howard Reich of the Chicago Tribune declaring that Marsalis
“achieved a new level of emotional intensity and instrumental
brilliance.” Billboard added, “the album’s title
… could not be more descriptive. This straight-ahead jazz set is
truly contemporary, completely in the moment, and part-and-parcel with
the times in which it was created …The music is as visceral as
it comes.” Contemporary Jazz is Marsalis’ twelfth jazz
album in a catalogue of recordings that includes two Buckshot LeFonque
pop albums and an earlier Sony Classical release, Romances for
Saxophone (MK/PMT 42122). Marsalis has also made his mark as a
producer, working with such artists as Dávid Sanchez (whose
albums Obsesión and Melaza were Grammy nominees for Best Latin
Jazz Performance), Frank McComb and Joey Calderazzo.
Branford Marsalis has not limited his musical activities to recordings.
His presence is notable in a number of film scores, as both composer
and featured soloist. He wrote, arranged and produced the film score
for the critically acclaimed Showtime movie, Mr. & Mrs. Loving,
starring Timothy Hutton and Lela Rochon. Other recent scores include
the Disney/NBC film Single Dad and the feature film Once in the Life,
which marked the directorial debut of actor Laurence Fishburne.
Marsalis has also participated in the soundtracks to several Spike Lee
films, including Mo’ Better Blues, Malcolm X and Clockers.
Additionally, he contributed to the soundtracks Sneakers starring
Robert Redford and The Russia House starring Sean Connery and Michelle
Today, Marsalis is shaping the future of jazz in the classroom. He recently took a part-time position with San Francisco State University as part of their music faculty. This follows a similar association with Michigan State University, where Marsalis taught, first as a visiting scholar and then as a part-time faculty member.
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