Marsalis to play Page tonight

You might know Branford Marsalis from a variety of places-as one of the most innovative jazzmen of his generation, as Wynton's brother, from gigs on "The Tonight Show" or with Sting.

So what is he doing in Durham, playing Brazilian music with an orchestra?

Actually, Marsalis has lived in the Bull City for six years. He has been recording Brazilian music for two decades, reaching back to a 1986 wax of one of the works on tonight's program, Heitor Villa-Lobos' Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5. Furthermore, the tenor saxophonist has recently been honing his classical playing.

"I've been playing that stuff for six years and sounding not very good," he said in an interview at his home in August 2007. "Now that I'm starting to play classical music well, I derive more satisfaction from it because I know how long it's taken me with diligent practice to get to that place."

Playing with Filharmonia Brasileira, an orchestra that specializes in Villa-Lobos' music, Marsalis will play three pieces by the Brazilian and two by Frenchman and Villa-Lobos mentor Darius Milhaud, who was influenced by Brazilian music during his time as cultural attache to the country in the 1910s.

Duke Performances Director Aaron Greenwald said Milhaud and Villa-Lobos, in addition to fitting with a series of Brazilian concerts this season, dovetail neatly with Marsalis because both were influenced by early 20th-century jazz.

Greenwald said he felt that Marsalis has undertaken the tour to challenge himself, citing some of the lower profile venues included on the tour itinerary.

"There's no reason why Branford needs to be playing 25 to 30 cities with an orchestra," Greenwald said. "Part of the reason he did that was he needed time to get around the music. It's a road warrior's tour, and we're at the end of the road."

Marsalis attributed his exploration of the classical world to a willingness to exploit an opportunity. With audiences shrinking in the 1990s, he said, urban orchestras turned to black artists-many without classical backgrounds-to draw black listeners.

"They started hiring me for these gigs for their own reasons... so I seized the opportunity to put myself in a position to make myself a better musician," Marsalis explained. "People are no longer going to say, 'Wow, that's a lot better than we thought it was going to be.' [I'm] not great, but pretty good. I want to keep doing it because it makes me better-it makes my jazz playing better, it makes my sax playing a lot better."

Despite living in Durham, Marsalis has played infrequently at Duke-appearing with the Ciompi Quartet in November 2006 and doing a brief cameo during a Terence Blanchard concert in Spring of the same year-or indeed in the area at all. In a rare treat, Triangle listeners have the chance to hear the saxophonist twice this year-tonight at Duke and again with his working quartet in February at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Branford Marsalis and Filharmonia Brasileira, conducted by Gil Jardim, will perform Marsalis Brasilianos tonight in Page Auditorium at 8 p.m. Tickets are $5 for students, $28-44 for others.


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