World-class jazz saxophonist Branford Marsalis will embark on a new journey in the world of classical music at the 2012 Minnesota Beethoven Festival.
Marsalis, a three-time Grammy winner who has his own jazz quartet, is no stranger to classical music and is a frequent soloist with major symphony orchestras. But when he opens the Beethoven festival on Sunday, July 1, the 51-year-old jazz-fusion artist will perform his first classical music recital since high school.
“This recital is something I have wanted to do for a long time,” Marsalis said in a recent telephone interview. “I don’t play classical music as much as I would like, but the more I play, the better I get. It is the most solid music I play.”
For the recital, Marsalis is collaborating with pianist Ned Kirk, a Saint Mary’s University music professor and the festival’s artistic-managing director.
“He is an amazing musician, and collaborating with him has been a joy,” Kirk said. “He is the first artist who has treated me like a partner, with a lot of give and take.
“This collaboration has been incredibly rewarding,” he said.
Kirk has rehearsed with Marsalis in California, North Carolina and New Orleans in preparation for the recital. It was Kirk who suggested they stage a classical music recital together after Marsalis and a Brazilian ensemble performed a special concert in October 2008 as part of the Beethoven Festival.
“He was very excited about such a recital because it was new to him, and it has been an amazing experience,” Kirk said.
Marsalis will play works for alto and soprano sax by six composers, including Beethoven and Samuel Barber.
Marsalis has played classical music professionally for 10 years. He performs about 10 classical music concerts a year, and he made his debut with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra two years ago.
“I was horrified playing with the New York Philharmonic, and I had not shaken like that on stage in a long time,” Marsalis said. “But in the end, it was awesome.
“I had to make a lot of technical changes,” he said. “The saxophone is the loudest of all instruments, and I was not trained to play softly. I had to tame the instrument for better control.”
He said he wasn’t fearful of classical music, though.
“I’m not afraid to fail on stage, it’s my best attribute,” he said. “Anything can go wrong on stage, but you always learn something from it.”
Marsalis, who played in a youth symphony orchestra as a child, said his first three or four years of playing classical music as a professional was a struggle.
“I was not very good,” Marsalis said. “I had to reconfigure my playing. It requires a different and certain level of precision and interpretation.
“You have to groove just like jazz, but jazz is more conversational, and with classical music, you must develop a character that is believable.”
He likes the sound and beauty of classical music, which has taught him much, Marsalis said.
Marsalis said he was in a rut as a jazz player, but playing classical music has made him a better jazz musician.
“I didn’t want to learn all those damn notes,” Marsalis said. “There is a ton of repetition, and I’m not good at that or that patient.
“But playing classical music has helped with timing and tempo as a jazz musician,” he said. “I don’t tend to rush. My sound is more solid, my technique better. All this has had positive unintended consequences, and you grow as a musician and person.”
Marsalis said he likes his collaboration with Kirk, and he is considering taking the recital on tour in the future.
“Ned is awesome,” Marsalis said. “It’s hard to basically enforce a musical relationship. But he’s easy to work with and he enjoys the process. We have a fun time, and it would be awesome to take him on tour.”