Recording information: Grace Cathedral, San Francisco, CA (10/05/2012).
Photographer: Palma Kolansky.
Until now, the one thing Branford Marsalis hasn't recorded is a solo saxophone album. In My Solitude: Live at Grace Cathedral realizes that ambition in grand style. It was meticulously planned and recorded in the same venue where Duke Ellington delivered his first Sacred Concert in 1965. Marsalis uses the cathedral's amazing acoustics as a collaborator in delivering a dazzling array of material. Playing soprano, tenor, and alto saxophones, he begins with the straight horn Steve Lacy's "Who Needs It," bringing the composition's unconventional yet wondrous scalar lyricism to the fore. He follows this on tenor with a truly soulful read of the Hoagy Carmichael standard "Stardust," allowing its bluesy undertones to shine through. He also uses the tenor for a reading of C.P.E Bach's "Sonata in A Minor for Oboe, Wq. 132." Marsalis is faithful and precise but not overly reverential, making room for some of the horn's tonal possibilities in coloring and sonorously embellishing the harmonics. There are four excellent improvisations here as well. The first is played on alto. His sure-footed arpeggios take the horn from bebop to post-bop and beyond without overplaying, creating spatial and lyrical narratives simultaneously. The concert's finest moment, however, is his alto reading of classical composer Ryo Noda's Mai, Op. 7. The work, written as a sonata for saxophone, curiously and mysteriously employs multiphonics -- textural and tonal characteristics to reflect the character of Japan's traditional shakuhachi flute. It is haunting and resonant, showcasing Marsalis' breath control across the alto's timbral range. He also contributes two original tunes. An airy ballad played on soprano, "The Moment I Recall Your Face" is as lyrical as a folk song. His walking "Blues for One" is nearly seven minutes in length and retains the 12-bar structure throughout, yet traces the history of the form as it relates to both improvisation and song. The encore "I'm So Glad We Had This Time Together" -- from The Carol Burnett Show -- is a tender, sincere engagement with the tune, revealing the saxophonist's genuine love of popular culture and its influence on his work. In My Solitude is not only the completion of another chapter in Marsalis' long and varied musical career, but a peak in it. With all its elegance, warmth, and humor, this concert is a musical tour de force. ~ Thom Jurek