If you like the sound of a saxophone flying solo, just wait until you hear it in a big-ass church.
Vince Guaraldi has recorded a concert there, Duke Ellington has recorded a concert there, now it's saxophonist Branford Marsalis's turn to record a live album in San Francisco's Grace Cathedral. This time, he is without his usual band. It's just Marsalis and his horn, playing for over an hour. And that's taxing for the guy. "After a gig, I'm usually happy to spend time with friends," he said of any other show. "But after the Grace Cathedral concert I just wanted to go to sleep." Not that a musician like Branford Marsalis isn't above certain challenges (his live solo rendition of "St. Thomas" gave his Renaissance a groovy finish), it's just the flying without a safety net for so long requires a lot of focus. In addition to that, a building made of stone inside and out can amplify your every clam. Listening to the resultant album In My Solitude: Live at Grace Cathedral in the car, my wife observed that Marsalis sounded like a busker on a street corner. "I feel like I should put a dollar in a hat," she noted.
And since the music on In My Solitude was born out of deep concentration, it takes deep concentration to enjoy it. Passively listening to it from front to back is going to make the album sound like pretty noodling. Melodies and solos become one as the jazz standards threaten to meld too seamlessly with Marsalis's untitled improvisational pieces. Pardon the word, but you'll have to listen to In My Solitude... ahem... in solitude. You need to block out everything. No reading, no sweeping the floor, no paying your bills online -- you need to be focused on the music completely. That's quite a rub these days for most of us, I realize that. But how else can one approach a solo saxophone album that lasts almost 65 minutes?
The program is bookended by some conventional choices, with Steve Lacy's "Who Needs It" and Hoagy Carmichael's "Stardust" starting things off. He closes it out with "I'm So Glad We Had This Time Together". In between, the selections get more interesting. In addition to Marsalis's four untitled improvisations, he performs his originals "The Moment I Recall Your Face" and "Blues for One" and covers Japanese composer Ryo Noda's "Mai, Op. 7" and Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach's "Sonata in A Minor for Oboe Solo Wq. 132: I Poco Adagio". "Blues for One" is placed late in the set and showcases Marsalis as a one-man 12-bar blues machine (doted-eighth rhythm, some lead, back to the doted-eighth riff and so on). It's a funny thing to hear reverberating within a holy structure. But speaking of which, Marsalis's horn has found a complimentary environment in Grace Cathedral. The press material doesn't make any mention of microphone placement or what, if any, adjustments were made in the final mix-down. But when the notes don't get muddled together throughout the course of the whole concert, it's probably safe to assume that this is the way it all fell onto tape (any who has played an instrument in a concrete environment is aware of the pitfalls).
In My Solitude: Live at Grace Cathedral won't exactly surprise you since it sounds just like a solo saxophone set inside a large church. It delivers exactly what it promises... or rather, infers. This is the very thing that will both bore the already uninterested and intrigue the curious. Hearing a pure note, composed by C.P.E. Bach, sounded by Branford Marsalis and amplified by Grace Cathedral is just one of those little luxuries that we don't get to experience that often. Fortunately, you can always take In My Solitude home with you.