Branford Marsalis brings his cool to the CSO

Marsalis is the featured soloist in the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra's annual 'One City, One Symphony' concert.

click to enlarge Marsalis has a return engagement with the CSO. - Photo: Palma Kolansky
Photo: Palma Kolansky
Marsalis has a return engagement with the CSO.
Branford Marsalis uses the word “cool” a lot in conversation. He also projects the essence of cool, even over the phone speaking from his home in Raleigh, N.C. A master of Jazz and the Classical saxophone repertory, Marsalis performs with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra Friday and Saturday, returning after an appearance in 2013.

Marsalis is the featured soloist for the CSO’s annual One City, One Symphony concert, for which he will perform composer John Williams’ Escapades for alto saxophone and orchestra. The work is based on themes that Williams composed for the film Catch Me If You Can.

“It’s a great piece of music, very well-crafted,” Marsalis says. “In the third movement, the piece breaks down into a hot Jazz quartet, with a walking bass line and the piano chords. It’s really cool because it’s very similar to what you would hear in Jazz groups, but it’s not a Jazz sequence. It’s very smart. The melodies are great — his melodies always are. And it’s clear that John has played Jazz.”

This is the fifth year for the One City, One Symphony concert, and the first that doesn’t center on a single piece of music, says Meghan Berneking of the CSO. Its Thanksgiving-linked theme is “home” and, in keeping, the composers on the program are American. Besides Williams, they include Leonard Bernstein’s overture to Candide, Aaron Copland’s music from the film Our Town and suite from The Tender Land and a world premiere of Michael Fiday’s Three for One. Music director Louis Langrée conducts.

Marsalis’ responses to questions are carefully considered and forthright, his voice lightly tinged with a New Orleans drawl that is never less than cool. He’s the eldest son in a famed New Orleans music family headed by his father, pianist Ellis Jr., and including brothers Wynton, Delfeayo and Jason. Marsalis grew up steeped in the local music traditions but never confined himself to one musical genre.

When asked about Jazz influences in Classical music, he turns the question inside out. “A lot of things attributed to Jazz have nothing to do with Jazz at all,” he says. "What are considered Jazz chords were actually written by Classical composers before the Jazz guys ever got to them. But that’s OK. We’ll take it.”

He continues to refine his technique no matter what the genre. “I learned Jazz melodically,” he says. “That beat is just a little wider than the traditional street beat, so I had to narrow mine a little bit. And I tend to take liberties in certain ways.”

Over the past two decades, Marsalis has performed with leading orchestras including the New York Philharmonic, the Chicago and Detroit symphonies and the Boston Pops. His repertoire includes works by well-known composers and he has inspired contemporary composers to write for him. 

Describing his first Classical performance, Marsalis admits to a struggle. “I was so bad at it!” he says, bursting out with laughter. “It’s gotten better and I have to keep honing my skills. Some of these pieces are technically difficult and hard to grasp. I’m honored that anyone would consider doing a piece with me involved. It’s really cool.”

Making the shift from a small Jazz ensemble to soloing with a full orchestra doesn’t faze Marsalis. But he knows what he wants with an orchestra. “I need to hear the beat, so I want a conductor who’s flexible, who can hear the music and know how to pull things out of the orchestra,” he says.  

Marsalis first appeared with the CSO in 2012, performing Dutch composer Jacob ter Veldhuis’ Tallahatchie Concerto and the saxophone parts in Sergei Prokofiev’s suite from Lieutenant Kijé. During the 2012-13 season, he served as a creative director for the CSO’s Ascent series, and in April 2013 performed in the CSO’s Classical Roots concert.

He says he regrets that he didn’t have more time to hear other artists in the Ascent series. But during his residency in March 2013, he led jam sessions with local musicians, master classes and gave an impromptu performance at the Westin Hotel.

Although Marsalis will be in town for at least part of the Thanksgiving weekend, he’s unsure about getting out to explore. He says: “I gotta practice!”

BRANFORD MARSALIS performs with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra at the Taft Theatre 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday. More info: