Branford Marsalis Demonstrates Leadership in Richmond

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The soprano sax solo swelled to a thunderous roar, with Marsalis at the top of his range and the rhythm section mustering all the volume they could out of their instruments.
Branford Marsalis Quartet
Building Leaders Symposium at St. Christopher's School
Richmond, VA
April 12, 1008

With legendary musicians right in front of their eyes, a field house filled with people of all ages and all musical backgrounds watched as Branford Marsalis and his quartet donned the stage. For some, this was the first jazz they had ever heard. For others, this was a rare event not to be missed. The event was a leadership conference entitled "Building Leaders From the Inside Out," located at St. Christopher's private school in the suburban West End. The Saturday afternoon concert closed the three day symposium, which consisted of various notables speaking about their experiences as leaders.

Thomas Watkins, Music Director of the Omaha Symphony who has conducted for various established symphonies throughout America, began the final session of the weekend with an inspiring speech about leadership and what to do when faced with an obstacle, citing Beethoven's 5th Symphony and his own experiences. Marsalis soon joined him on stage for a conversation and Q&A session.

One of the saxophonist's points that stuck out was what he felt was wrong with jazz education. He described his studies at Berklee College of Music and how the teachers and curriculum "overemphasized the solo." He notes that this still happens today. Students are still required to transcribe famous solos, but this is saying that what the rest of the band played at that moment does not matter. This emphasis on individuality is not the way to teach jazz. Instead, the importance of the group's sound should be stressed.

Next, joined by pianist Joey Calderazzo, Eric Revis on bass, and Jeff "Tain" Watts on drums, Marsalis presented a set of music that never once overemphasized the solo. The aptly alliterated opening tune, Tain's "Ling's Lope," made immediately clear Marsalis' intentions as a soloist: to evoke a meaningful conversation within the band. The phrasing of his statements and noticeable use of space beckoned the other musicians to respond with a thought.

The rhapsodic free ballad "Hope," written by Calderazzo, followed with a whisper. The pianist's wandering octaves in the upper register were serenely accompanied by his left hand's arpeggios and a landscaped murmur of rumbling drums and rolled cymbals. The soprano sax solo swelled to a thunderous roar, with Marsalis at the top of his range and the rhythm section mustering all the volume they could out of their instruments. The piece ended just as it began.

The mood lightened up with a clever arrangement of Thelonious Monk's "Rhythm-A-Ning." The funk groove metrically modulated every couple of measures to a slower shuffle beat, and then back again. Tain's second solo of the afternoon hinted at the melody humorously and played on the two tempos. His chops were presented with a purpose—always tasteful and never overbearing—and his solo rose to a crowd- pleasing intensity while not going overboard.

The next two pieces were in honor of Wilkins, whom Marsalis has known and performed with in orchestras. Marsalis took a motif from a piece by Wagner entitled "Fate" and turned it into a light bossa nova. Henry Purcell's "O Solitude" proved an interesting selection. Inspired when he heard it sung by a counter tenor, Marsalis decided to try it with his quartet as a ballad with a slight march feel. The melody with its repetitious harmonic progression seemed to drag on (the music on Marsalis's stand was, after all, 8 pages long), but the solos were worth the wait. Marsalis maintained a nice vibrato to imitate the voice of a counter tenor.

John Winn, St. Christopher's jazz band director who can often been seen playing around Richmond, was invited to join the band for the last tune. Singing Ellington's "In A Mellow Tone," he impressed the crowd with his soulful pipes and imaginative scat singing. With grins on their faces, the band closed the set.

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