Branford Marsalis performs at the Union Chapel. Photo: Roger Thomas © Roger Thomas

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In a chapel setting that exposes every nuance of phrasing and tone, it was fitting that American saxophonist Branford Marsalis had called his solo recital “In My Solitude”. From first to last he immersed himself in an intense and demanding performance that only recognised the outside world to mimic exactly the slurred wail of a passing ambulance.

Marsalis has a command of the European classical tradition as well as jazz and his repertoire integrates both. His very sound blends the centred purity of the orchestral tradition with a relish for vocalisation. On this night, high-register notes, equally rounded on soprano and tenor sax, were as likely to end in a slide or guttural twist as hold true in a long-sustained whisper.

The evening ranged from stately baroque to raw Delta blues and from suave songbook classics to through-improvised abstractions based on a chirrup or single note. Over the course of the performance, Marsalis referenced the blues and bebop, Bach, Stravinsky and Fauré. And in each piece he captured the theme’s essence while projecting his formidable personality.

The first set opened with Marsalis on soprano sax arpeggiating the melody of “Who Needs It”. He repeated it at a whisper, extemporised each line and finally transformed the piece into wild octave leaps and tumbling cascades of sound. Next, fragments of melody hinted at swing-era greats, firmed up and crystallised into an oblique reading of Hoagy Carmichael’s “Stardust”. Then came a slightly mournful reading of an ornate Telemann fantasia, originally written for flute, played here straight on tenor sax.

Marsalis began the second set on alto sax with the ghostly, sustained notes of “Peacocks” slurring into a wall of malevolent ululations. The set progressed in downbeat mode, with tempos steady, Marsalis alternating between soprano and tenor saxes and classical influences to the fore.

Both halves ended with a syncopated spring in their step, the first with a homage to Sonny Rollins, the second with a composite bar-room blues that conjured rhythm, bass and honking tenor sax, though even here Marsalis squeezed in awkward phrases of his own creation.

The encore was “When the Saints”. At first, people clapped along. But gradually they petered out, not because of a loss of rhythm, but because the music was simply too intense.


Tour continues to Norwich, Europe and Malaysia, branfordmarsalis.com

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