SAXOPHONE RECITAL: Branford Marsalis, English Chamber Chorus and Orches tra/ Andrew Litton.
CBS Masterworks. Including arrangements of works by Debussy, Fauré, Ravel et al 
August 1986

Bilingualism, classical and jazz, in music was not invented by Wynton Marsalis. but it will surely seem a great pleasure that he has now been joined as a major exponent of that flexible skill by his older brother. Branford Marsalis adds yet a third attraction (to some!) in that he has just finished a year's playing with Sting's group in Paris, though finally resisting a resulting pressure to become a pop star: "I'm not tempted." he said in a recent interview. "What would I do with a million dollars'? I've spent too many years learning how to play saxophone to be interested in that." 

The new record indeed declares that those years were well spent: nobody will now dispute that he knows how to play the saxophone. In particular, the soprano. most intractable of the entire family (save, possibly, the now defunct sopranino!). With his soprano (still a little lumpy at the bottom. here and there) he explores, with infallible technique and a sensitive classical style, a repertoire he describes accurately as "French stuff-Debussy, Couperin. Ravel". A lunatic idea? By no means; he explores it with great success. 

Michel Colombier, who has supplied superlative orchestrations, or adaptations, for everything in the programme, and the quality of these, combined with the quality of the ECO's playing, produces a great listening pleasure in itself. L'isle joyeuse, for example: who, coming new to the music. would believe that this was a piano piece, that the scoring was not Debussy's own? As it happens. the same arrangement does highlight one of Colombier's problems: the soprano sax is not self-effacing, and takes rather uneasily to partnership with an orchestra. Outright domination works well, where suitable: in the Rachmaninov Vocalise, for example, or the Villa-Lobos Fifth Bachiana brasileira, or the third Satie Gymnopédie (did not Debussy himself also once make an arrangement of this?). Where there is less domination, there is a risk of hearing the result as an orchestral performance with the sax part rather too prominent.

The thought is an ungenerous one in view of the beautiful sound made throughout; soloist, orchestra, arranger and recording engineer alike. And of course the composers concerned. Rachmaninov, Stravinsky. Villa-Lobos. Mussorgsky: "French stuff"? Well. no; but few will think such a quibble of the essence.

M. M. 

[back to Press]