In his solitude: Branford Marsalis goes solo live at Grace Cathedral

Branford Marsalis’ latest solo album isn’t for everyone. In My Solitude: Live At Grace Cathedral may even try the patience of the saxophonist’s most devoted fans. But then, the October 21, 2014 release is quite a departure from Marsalis’ usual favorites — the gigs that thrust him in the jazz/classical-to-mainstream spotlight — roaring off a quartet or duo interplay, or resplendent in an orchestral or chamber setting.

In this new album, Marsalis goes it alone with just his instruments on soprano, alto, and tenor, and his innate sense of melody and feel. In My Solitude features 11 original and cover tracks, including four pure improvisations made in the moment and inspired by the intrinsic sounds of the San Francisco cathedral and even of a passing siren outside.

It is his first unaccompanied concert, performed and recorded live before an appreciative audience back on October 5, 2012 in a church where Duke Ellington once held court with his Sacred Concerts in the Sixties. It is also a performance/recording Marsalis did not approach lightly. He prepared by listening to solos from jazz and classical artists of such renown as Sonny Rollins, Sam Newsome, and Steve Lacy, to Arno Bornkamp, Angela Hewitt, and Anner Bylsma.

Acutely aware of jazz’s reputation for staying in the harmonic clouds and remaining ever elusive to the grasp of the mainstream crowd, Marsalis relied heavily on his own instincts as a melodic artist — over blatant showboating. In everything he played on this new album, he strived to keep melody utmost, which you can hear all over his loving, nostalgic return to “Stardust,” as well as his good-humored, familiar melodic punch in Carol Burnett’s signature sign-off, “I’m So Glad We Had This Time Together,” and his own curvaceous, cantankerous tease in “Blues For One.”

“From my time playing R&B and rock and roll, I can listen like a casual listener,” Marsalis explained, in a recent DL Media press release, “but the challenge for 80 percent of any audience, for any kind of music, is hearing melody and improvisation based on melody. Playing a lot of notes can be impressive at first, but will quickly make every song sound similar. So everything I played at Grace Cathedral was based on songs with great melodies, not being too ‘notey,’ and utilizing the feeling in the room.”

On the covers and his two originals, Marsalis is in his own element, commanding the melodic music and the crowd. He easily traverses the hard, technical paths into and out of Pleasantville, to imprint his own complex but affable personality onto every well-worn note. “The Moment I Recall Your Face” exemplifies this classic Branford Marsalis behavior, the one he meant for this live solo release alone.

A composition he wrote, “The Moment…” reflects the saxophonist’s ability to float in the ether, taking his time to evoke the moods he himself is feeling, without too much pressure to get to the point for the audience feedback. Yet, nothing is superfluously grandiose. Even the movements outside the definitive heart of a melody are so comprehensive, cohesive, and evocative of the whole, you gladly follow him astray. As far as he’s liable to go, he always takes a piece of that melody with him — even at the 5:24 mark, when he’s stretching the limits of the high notes in spare squeaks (the audience laughs, totally getting on board).

Yet, the vagrancy expands exponentially in his four improvisational pieces. This is where Marsalis seems to go completely inside himself, open to whatever passing fancy attracts his fingers and tones. That’s exactly what happened on “Improvisation No. 3,” as Marsalis picked up on an ambulance wailing by outside (1:14).

For those willing to go along for the spontaneous, but tenacious ride, Marsalis’ improvisations are the best of this live solo album. They test him in a way that the written chart cannot. Will he diverge too deeply and lose the audience’s interest? Can he hold onto the texture without a skip as his attention moves around in that cavernous, holy room? He was aware of and up for the challenge.

“There’s a difference between playing in the Village Vanguard, and Alice Tully Hall in Lincoln Center, and Royal Festival Hall in London; and there is definitely a difference playing in Grace Cathedral, with its seven-second delay. Playing solo interludes in other rooms where my quartet performs was not going to prepare me. I had to hear that Grace Cathedral sound in my head,” Marsalis continued. “…Musical spontaneity, like spontaneity in any language, has to be within a context to be meaningful, and the more music you know, the more spontaneous you can be. So I went out on stage with spaces intentionally left in the program, where I could create improvisations clearly based both on what I had just played and the feeling of the room and the audience.”

To prove this, Marsalis used the inspiration of Japan’s bamboo flute, the shakuhachi, and on Japanese musician Ryo Noda’s composition, “MAI.” Marsalis played “MAI” on his alto as one would on the Japanese flute, letting the instrument dictate form — a painstaking, but breathtaking allotment, for those who would wait.

Several respected jazz artists have taken to such live performances, notably guitarist Kevin Eubanks in his September 2011 Jazz on the Mountain at Whistler Festival. Instead of playing what’s on a page, they veer off course, letting what they feel in the moment guide them. The inspirations could be the energy of the audience or one particular moment — perhaps the warmth of the acoustics in a voluminous setting.

Branford Marsalis knows this. He felt the difference after his Grace Cathedral performance. “Playing a solo concert is just hard. After a gig, I’m usually happy to spend time with friends, but after the Grace Cathedral concert I just wanted to go to sleep,” he described in the DL Media release. “After all, if I have an off night with my band, Joey [Calderazzo], Eric [Revis], and Justin [Faulkner] will pick up the slack. But this was just me.”

For those who are willing to go there, just him was enough.