There’s something wildly simple about Branford Marsalis’ first solo album, and it’s fetching. Instead of turning this San Francisco performance into a placard for virtuosity, the esteemed reed player spends the bulk of his presentation yielding to facility. Most everything here, from extended improvs concocted on the spot to rudimentary blues motifs essayed with eloquence, sounds like it’s coming from his horn unencumbered – thoughts made into sound, spilling forward as if they know their destination.
As a conversationalist, Branford is loquacious. Dude can spout all afternoon, and be quite captivating doing so. You get a parallel of that with his quartet work – squalls of ideas explode into a four-man fray. Here we see another side. With an array of saxophones at the ready and majestic venue that brings an aural bounce-back to each utterance (the cathedral’s natural echo is essential to the album’s sound), he’s more considerate, choosing to spotlight long tones and circumspect filigree. It’s a seductive approach, learned at the hand of his numerous classical music dates and plotted from the notion that melody – even curt cascades of song-like motifs – is central to the music experience.
The catholic interests we’ve grown accustomed to in Marsalis’ previous work mark this program. Perhaps the two bookends are Hoagy Carmichael’s “Stardust,” essayed in deeply lyrical mode that recalls Lester Young, and “MAI, Op.7,” a through-composed piece by Ryo Noda that brings aggressive textural gambits and extended pronouncements to the fore in an effort to conjure the spirit of the Japanese shakuhachi. They couldn’t be further apart esthetically, but find value by giving this show an ambitious breadth.
Perhaps most impressive are the four improvs Marsalis creates. Each is reflective, casual, and full of candor. Like some unholy middle ground between Sonny Rollins’ The Solo Album and John Klemmer’s Solo Saxophone II, Branford has dropped a soliloquy that speaks in tongues.