That’s Branford Marsalis (center) with jazz guitar genius David Gilmore and David’s dad, Marvin — owner of the Western Front, music-enthusiast, and all-around man-about-town. The occasion was the latest in the Ruth and Carl J. Shapiro Celebrity Lecture Series at the MFA, also known as “Evenings with Creative Minds.” Which is probably why it didn’t show up on the MFA’s concert calendar. That said, there was plenty of great music. Yes, Branford began by talking, in his gloriously off-the-cuff, eloquent, and blunt-spoken style.
Over the past 30 years, jazz fans have grown accustomed to the rants of Branford and younger brother Wynton. But Branford at least has always been a charming and funny gadfly. In a short talk that began with a quote from Faulkner about the expressive powers of music. Marsalis went off on the particular powers of instrumental music. Differing with Faulkner’s contention that music was the easiest way to express emotion directly, Marsalis said that to the contrary, “music is not the easiest way to express anything.” Which is why people always lean toward music with lyrics. But, he said, the difference with instrumental music is that you can never say exactly what it’s about — and that’s it’s strength.
“The idea of instrumental music is difficult and tedious for most lay-persons to get their heads around, and it’s also difficult and tedious for most musicians to get their heads around.” For most players, songs are just a vehicle for virtuoso display. By contrast, he said, for opera singers, the sound of the voice becomes “an emotional template to deliver the music.” Powerful music is in sound and expression, not technique. He also delivered a little rant — with pointed examples — about musicians who don’t listen to each other, who are only in it for the solo.
Okay, then it was time to deliver. Marsalis left the stage and returned with long-time bandmate, pianist Joey Calderazzo. The two earlier this year released Songs of Mirth and Melancholy on Branford’s Marsalis Music label, and they played a handful of songs. Opener “One Way,” a blues by Calderazzo, was fast and funny, with Marsalis on tenor. Marsalis’s “The Bard of Lachrymose” showed off his beautiful, rounded soprano tone as well as his growing taste for classical devices. Even more classical was Calderazzo’s “La valse Kendall.” Marsalis introduced it by saying he used to reject Calderazzo’s 3/4 tunes because he wasn’t interested in playing anything in 3/4 unless it was a real waltz. This was one, with Calderazzo’s left hand keeping the gentle oom-pah-pahs through elaborate variations. What’s more, the rubato elasticity of his lines and the darkly colored inner harmonies were downright Chopin-esque.
Marsalis’s “Endymion” (for tenor) had plenty of good laugh lines in the hide-and-seek parries and thrusts of its cyclical structure. But the standout may have been the final number, Calderazzo’s “Hope,” written in memory of saxophonist Michael Brecker. Here the beauty of execution — the surprising shifts in tempo, Calderazzo’s elegiac chording, the dramatic arc of the improvisations — delivered all the emotion you could ask for from two musicians who were listening as hard as they played.