Jazz music was created in the United States during the late 19th and early 20th century with its origins in the African-American community. Baroque music on the other hand started much earlier in the late 15th and early 16th century with a group of humanists, musicians, poets and intellectuals in Florence, Italy during the late Renaissance.
Heading to Thursday’s concert by American Jazz saxophonist Branford Marsalis at The Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, I wondered how would a jazz musician present a baroque music program which is so far removed from his roots, time and geography.
Branford Marsalis was born on August 26, 1960 in Breaux Bridge, Louisiana and comes from the First Family of Jazz, The Marsalis. His brothers Jason, Ellis, Delfayo, father Ellis are all highly respected artists in this music genre and his younger brother Wynton Marsalis heads Jazz at Lincoln Center in NYC.
Mr. Marsalis was accompanied for the evening by The Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia which featured him as a soloist in half of the program’s compositions.
The evening began with a wonderful rendition of German composer Johan Sebastian Bach’s “Air on a G String”, from his orchestral suite #3 in D major which gave the audience a traditional rendition to the work. The very young and capable chamber orchestra ensemble featured the very talented Meichen Liao-Barnes on lead violin and Raphael Fusco on the harpsichord, which is a type of early piano used in baroque music.
For his first piece as the soloist Mr. Marsalis delighted the audience with “Concerto A Cinque” by Italian composer Tomaso Giovanni Albinoni. Although meant to be played on an oboe (a double reed wood instrument from the 1700’s) this version was played masterfully on a soprano sax which in contrast is a single reed instrument dating to the mid 1800’s with the arrangement by Marsalis from the oboe original.
Wrapping up the first half of the program was the Spanish themed “Don Quichotte” by German composer Georg Philipp Telemann by The Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia with some interesting use of the two basses mimicking the sounds of castanets. This was followed by “Concerts Royaux Premier Concert” “by French composer François Couperin in a trio format which included a cello, harpsichord and the soprano sax.
Mr. Marsalis explained that his piece was structured to allow some improvisation by the trio because the original was written without indication of instrumentation.
The second part of the program began with French composer Louis-Antoine Dornel’s “Sonata G major” in trio format featuring Mr. Marsalis on soprano sax, followed by the chamber orchestra doing the very melodic “Concerto Grosso in C minor, Op. 1 No. 6” by Italian composer Pietro Antonio Locatelli.
Ending the program on a “high note” was an incredible version of Johan Sebastian Bach’s “Concerto for Oboe, Strings, and Continuo in F” which brought a high level of energy and synergy between Mr. Marsalis and The Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia and the audience to their feet. Not to disappoint his jazz fans he pulled one of the bass player center stage and along with the harpsichordist played a couple of jazz standards that brought down the house because of their spontaneity, improvisation and creativity.
Even though the evening’s program was made up of music from the late 1600’s and early 1700’s it was tinged throughout the evening with the flavor of jazz, giving it more vitality, modernity and flavor. Now some purists might scoff at programs that are not presented in the spirit of the time it was written in and with the original instrument orchestration, but in this era of connectivity, fusions of cultures, food, music and people this type of reinterpretation of classic works can make them more attractive to a younger and diverse audience.