Celtic Connections - Branford Marsalis

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Branford Marsalis

Branford Marsalis’ reputation for innovation and diversity makes him perfectly suited to the Celtic Connections programme says Kenny Mathieson

Celtic Connections has never been overly troubled by any lack of an actual Celtic connection in the artists who visit the festival, but Branford Marsalis must surely qualify as one of the furthest stretches so far from any perceived Celtic-ness. Nonetheless, the American saxophone giant is a more than welcome addition to a programme that isn’t noted for much jazz content, and he will feature in a context that reflects his own eclectic approach to music.

The Homecoming Scotland Suite (and yes, we are all going to be thoroughly sick of hearing about Homecoming 2009 long before the year ebbs away) will feature the saxman as one of a number of guests in a programme in which Scottish traditional music comes together with classical music, with a powerful dash of jazz thrown in.

Marsalis will perform as the soloist in Sally Beamish’s Under the Wing of the Rock, inspired by a Gaelic lullaby and influenced by the composer’s familiarity with Marsalis’s own playing. Lining up with an orchestra – in this case the Royal Scottish National – will be nothing new for the saxophonist.

Like his brother, trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, the New Orleans-born saxophonist has performed and recorded classical repertoire in the past, and is entirely comfortable in that setting. Then again, he is pretty comfortable in almost any setting.

Although his primary reputation is as a jazz musician, he has collaborated with artists as diverse as Gang Starr, The Grateful Dead, Sting and Bruce Hornsby, and is currently touring with the Philarmonia Brasileira in a programme commemorating the 50th anniversary of the death of Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos. It all reflects a pragmatic approach to the sometimes thorny business of musical genres.

‘I play the music I want to play,’ he told me on a previous (but all too rare) visit to Scotland. ‘You can’t develop anything by yourself – there has never been anybody in the history of the world who started anything good without some influences. There are only twelve notes in the Western scale, so nobody is doing anything really new – nobody is developing new notes, man, so all you can do is try to find new approaches to playing the old ones.’

It is something he has done with conspicuous success, and if his jazz quartet remains his principal vehicle, it will be fascinating to hear him in the context of Sally Beamish’s distinctive music. Working with jazz musicians is not new to the composer either. Her Saxophone Concerto was premiered by John Harle at the St Magnus Festival, while Tommy Smith performed as the soloist in her major Proms commission Knotgrass Elegy in 2001.

Tommy Smith is also one of the eight composers whose work will feature in the Homecoming Scotland Suite. His contribution will be a new version of a piece originally written for the Edinburgh Youth Orchestra in 2003, in which the orchestra is augmented by his tenor saxophone and contributions from drummer Alyn Cosker, bassist Calum Gourlay and bodhran player Martin O’Neill.

Main Auditorium Royal Concert Hall, Sun 25 Jan, 7.30pm.

Homecoming Scotland Suite

The RSNO performs specially commissioned works by eight leading composers and musicians, in a bid to re-establish the strong links that once existed between Scottish classical and traditional music. Sally Beamish's 'Under the Wing' features legendary saxophonist Branford Marsalis, along with a host of other fantastic…

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