Saxophonist Branford Marsalis’s website offers two biographies, one jazz-oriented and the other classical.
It’s the same talented, award-winning musician, who hails from New Orleans’ nationally known musical family the Marsalises, and he brings the same attention to detail and performance to each.
Waco audiences will hear the classical side next Thursday, Nov. 14, when he performs works by Darius Milhaud and Alexander Glazunov as guest artist with the Waco Symphony Orchestra.
Invented by Adolphe Sax in 1846 as an instrument bridging the tonal quality of woodwinds and the volume of brass, the saxophone was a relative latecomer to the symphony orchestra and never truly accepted, Marsalis said in a recent phone interview.
“It was roundly rejected by orchestras. They did not appreciate the instrument at all,” he said. “Jazz basically saved the saxophone.”
But Marsalis, raised in one of New Orleans’ foremost jazz families with father Ellis and younger brothers Wynton, Delfeayo and Jason, never shrugged off the classical side to the instrument.
He won acclaim for playing with such jazz and pop greats as Art Blakey, Herbie Hancock, Sting and his brother Wynton before starting his own quartet in 1986 and a brief two-year stint as musical director of Jay Leno’s “Tonight Show” in the 1990s. But he’s shone in the classical world as well, with collaborations with leading symphonies across the United States and in Europe, serving as creative director for the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra’s Ascent Series in 2013.
Marsalis describes the difference in playing classical and jazz on the saxophone as similar to a dialect in language: Vocabulary is largely the same, but rhythm, intonation and accents change the sound one hears. “It’s the same 12 notes,” he observed.
It’s in how one approaches playing those 12 notes where classical and jazz go in different directions. A first beat in jazz is somewhat relative, with a musician free to shade it earlier or later; in classical, it’s there or nothing — every other musician depends on a common, unified rhythm to stay together.
“I had to recalibrate my thinking,” Marsalis recalled about shifting to classical performance after playing jazz for a time. Because classical musicians play from a written score, they know where they’re going, even if tempo interpretations change when they get there; jazz players listen and play in the moment.
In either case, it’s the present performance that counts, depending on the interaction between players and what a musician brings in terms of experience and skill. “In the moment, you’re the sum total of your musical experience,” he said.
The Nov. 14 concert will find Marsalis playing Milhaud’s “Scaramouche” and Glazunov’s saxophone concerto, each coming from different parts of the emotional scale. For Milhaud, an acclaimed composer in Paris in the early part of the 20th century, joy and happiness, with a reference to a Brazilian tango thrown in, are the dominant feelings, Marsalis said.
On the other hand, Glazunov, who left a career and reputation in St. Petersburg in the late 1920s to flee a Communist regime, shaded his 1934 saxophone concerto with melancholy and wistfulness, he said.
Marsalis won’t be bringing melancholy onstage, he added. “I’ll be well-dressed. I’ll look good. I’ll have fun,” he said. “All the music is beautiful and it’s up to me to play it well.”
The balance of the concert finds the WSO supplementing the smaller Milhaud and Glazunov pieces with larger, more fully orchestrated works, Ravel’s “Daphnis and Chloe Suite 2” and Rachmaninoff’s “Symphonic Dances.”
WSO Music Director Stephen Heyde said the Ravel suite demonstrates the French composer’s skill in tonal coloration while the Rachmaninoff “Dances,” the Russian composer’s last work before his death in 1943, show a maturity in its lyricism and emotion.
The two orchestral pieces also find the Waco symphony on a higher level of play shaped by its preparation and performances of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 last spring and Richard Strauss’ “A Hero’s Life” last month, Heyde said.