The first thing I notice in listening to Creation, Branford Marsalis’s new album of classical music arranged for the saxophone and chamber orchestra, is his incredible tone. I’ve long thought Marsalis was a superior musician. Like many pop/rock fans (which I was once upon a time), I first became aware of him when he was a founding member of Sting’s first post-Police band. But by the time of that Dream of the Blue Turtles album and tour in 1985, he’d been playing professionally for five years, studied at Berklee, and of course had grown up in one of the most musical families ever to come out of Louisiana. Since then, he has released 13 albums under his own name, worked on film scores (notably Spike Lee’s Mo’ Better Blues), been the first musical director for The Tonight Show With Jay Leno, and recorded two albums that fuse jazz with hip-hop, jungle and other styles under the name Buckshot Lefonque. The Orpheus Chamber Orchestra is a 27-piece group that performs without conductor, reaching their creative decisions by collaboration. It’s not improvisation, but it has more in common with that than we expect from classical music. In performance, the musicians do allow each other space for spontaneous solos.
But then. Jazz sometimes has less to do with improvisation than the layman may think, at least according to Marsalis. In the documentary video The Music Tells You (recommended), Marsalis says, “There’s only freedom in structure, my man. There’s no freedom in freedom.” Another way of looking at this is that you have to know your circle before you can go outside your circle. “Avant-garde” can easily slip into being undisciplined junk if made by people who believe all it requires is noise. Marsalis, it is probably redundant to say, is both smarter and a better musician than that.
With Orpheus being a classical group that knocks at the walls of classical, and Marsalis being a jazzman who knocks at the walls of jazz, it seems entirely fitting that they should work together. Here, their collaboration is intended to explore the links between early American jazz and the French composers of the 20th century. It’s a beautiful and rewarding work, perhaps nowhere more so than on Darius Milhaud’s Scaramouche, a suite for Saxophone and Orchestra. This piece is contemplative and graceful, with a backdrop by the group like light, primary colors on which Marsalis blazes electric hues. Orpheus sets the scene with excerpts from Milhaud’s Saudades do Brasil until Marsalis enters, somehow paradoxically seeming to careen with exquisite control. And thinking about it, that might work as well as any metaphor for the accomplishment here, and arguably for jazz in the main. The warm rendition of Ravel’s Pavne pour une infante defunte may exemplify the idea of this collaboration best. This classical piece gained words to become the song “The Lamp Is Low”, and was quoted by John Coltrane.
This is not the first time Marsalis has recorded a classical set; he also did so in 1986 with the Romances For Saxophone album. That album was praised by some critics for its lyricism and musicality; terms that would seem apt for Marsalis himself at his best. He is one of my favorite kind of jazz musician, one who pays reverence to the jazz legacy, but also feels it is his job to keep nudging the walls between genres, whether between jazz and funk or classical, as here.
It seems stupidly obvious to say that Marsalis is a phenomenal saxophone player. But there it is, as the one thing I come away from listening to this CD with strongest: Branford Marsalis is a phenomenal saxophone player.