Branford Marsalis dazzles in CSO's American program

Branford Marsalis
Cincinnati Enquirer

Branford Marsalis is never predictable.
The Grammy-winning saxophonist brought a touch of “cool” to the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra in his performance of John Williams’ “Escapades” from the film “Catch Me if You Can.” It was smooth, finger-snapping and fun. For an encore, the NEA Jazz Master didn’t draw from the world of jazz, but played a classical piece of his own invention – inspired, unpredictably, by Prokofiev. Marsalis’ return visit to the Cincinnati Symphony on Friday was the centerpiece of an all-American concert led by Louis Langrée at the Taft Theatre.  The lighthearted Thanksgiving weekend program also spanned mid-century music by Leonard Bernstein and Aaron Copland and included the world premiere of a work by Michael Fiday, a University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music faculty member.

No one seemed to be having as much fun as Marsalis in Williams’ music for Stephen Spielberg’s 2002 film “Catch Me if You Can," performed after intermission. Written for alto saxophone and large orchestra, the work also featured Michael Culligan on vibraphone and principal bassist Owen Lee, who carried on a jazz dialogue with the saxophonist.
Its three movements describe scenes in the film, set in the 1960s. Williams writes in the notes that he wanted to evoke the time by writing in the style of the era’s progressive jazz movement.
Marsalis’ cool charisma and effortless technique were a natural for that style. The opening “Closing In” was like ‘60s spy music, with the entire orchestra punctuating the alto sax themes with perfectly timed finger snaps.
The slower “Reflections” offered a vehicle for Marsalis’ dazzling tone and elegant phrasing. He tossed off improvisational flourishes as easily as breathing. The upbeat “Joy Ride,” was the jazziest, and Lee and Culligan doubled Marsalis’ impressive riffs for an exciting finish. For his encore, Marsalis picked up his soprano sax to perform his own “The Bard Lachrymose,” which borrows an aria from Prokofiev’s opera, “The Gambler.” He soared with a pure tone in this melancholy Russian tune, which he set against a lush orchestral backdrop. Langrée and the orchestra provided refined support.
Read the rest of the review here.