Branford Marsalis Blends Beautifully With Brazilians

by: Chuck Obuchowsk
October 30, 2008

Branford Marsalis is widely acknowledged as one of the most formidable jazz saxophonists working today. His forays into classical music have not received as much attention, but he has become an admirable player in that field too, as he proved during his concert with Philharmonia Brasileira in Storrs Tuesday.

The event at the Jorgensen Center for the Performing Arts was billed as Marsalis Brasilianos. Even though Marsalis' contributions were noteworthy, the 29-piece Brazilian orchestra was the evening's real star.

Founding director Gil Jardim conducted the Philharmonia with guest soloist Marsalis in a program dedicated mostly to Brazilian composers, particularly Heitor Villa-Lobos. Two lively pieces by French composer Darius Mihaud were also included. São Paulo-based Jardim prompted his performers to invoke the rhythmic spirit of South American music, wielding his baton like a drumstick and making dance-like gestures at the podium.

Villa-Lobos was one of the first composers to successfully integrate Brazilian folk forms with orchestral music. His 1945 "Bachianas Brasileiras No. 9," played by the Philharmonia's string section, demonstrated a playfulness and passion rooted in folk songs. A simple melody was passed from one group of instruments to the next — from violins, to violas, to cellos — until all eventually "sang" in unison. At a time when American and European composers were pursuing more cerebral musical paths, Villa-Lobos reconnected his listeners with matters of the heart.

Marsalis joined the full orchestra earlier for the more familiar "Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5," written in 1938. His soprano saxophone blended seamlessly with the violins, gliding over a percolating rhythm section of tympani and plucked strings. During most of the 100-minute concert, Marsalis made no attempt to solo in the jazz sense; he played the music as notated, although he would occasionally add extra vibrato or tweak a rhythmic pulse in order to accentuate the music's emotion.

The 48-year-old reed man grew up in New Orleans, a cultural melting pot with strong French connections. Not surprisingly then, he seemed especially comfortable with the Mihaud works. "La Creation du Monde, Op. 81," from 1923, was one of the first orchestral pieces to borrow extensively from jazz. Marsalis, on alto sax, became an integral part of the ensemble on this six-part piece.

For "Scaramouche for Saxophone and Piano," he engaged in a jovial duet with keyboardist Nahim Marun Fo. The saxophonist's familiarity with Tuesday's repertoire was impressive; rarely did he refer to the scores. The full orchestra, including two percussionists, returned for the final piece of the program, "Vento em Madeira" ("Wind and Wood"), by contemporary Brazilian composer Léa Freire.

During the first of two encores, Marsalis finally let loose with a euphoric solo, as the Philharmonia Brasileira charged through Jardim's arrangement of a Milton Nacimento hit, "Vera Cruz." The horn players offered a respectable approximation of a big band horn section, as Marsalis' alto danced along to magical Brazilian beats.

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