Thursday, 26 May 2016

Sax in the City - Branford Marsalis at Norwich Cathedral

After tonight, I only have one remaining volunteer shift at this year's Norfolk and Norwich Festival, a coach assistant role to Great Yarmouth for Billy Bragg's highly anticipated show at the Hippodrome. This evening I swap lanyards to become box-office assistant at Norwich Arts Centre for two shows which form part the Writers' Centre Norwich's contribution to the Festival programme - The Harriet Martineau Lecture from dub poet, and former Black Panther, Linton Kwesi Johnson, followed by the premiere of Martin Figura's 'Doctor Zeeman's Catastrophe Machine'.

But, two days on, I am still buzzing from Tuesday, which was probably the highlight of my Festival so far - a rare chance to hear in Norwich the legendary jazz saxophonist Branford Marsalis. I last saw him play as the Branford Marsalis Quartet in St Andrews Hall as part of the 2003 Festival, and so this performance was right at the top of my wish-list for 2016. This time around I have propitiously been allocated a shift as Event Steward, guaranteeing a presence in the cathedral to hear the great master, even if not necessarily a view.

The concert is virtually sold out, including the three hundred 'restricted or no-view' seats in the side aisles of the cathedral's nave. As we are walked around the venue by Jay, our Event Manager, we are shown the 'Reserved for Steward' signs that have been strategically placed on certain seats along the length of these aisles. I therefore 'strategically' drape my jacket over the back of one that appears to offer a golden-ticket unhindered view of the three saxophone stands positioned on the low platform in front of the altar.

I know that I have done the fortuitous thing, for as soon as the cathedral doors are opened other 'unreserved seating' ticket-holders, who had been waiting outside, rush in a dignified manner to claim the remaining adjacent places in that very small block from which Marsalis will actually be visible. The five hundred seats in the central aisles all offer spectacular views of the Cathedral's impressive interior as well as the performance space, whilst those who have paid considerably less may be staring at the back of an enormous limestone column.

The lights are dimmed and the audience are seated. Branford Marsalis enters from a point exactly opposite where I am seated. I feel slightly guilty seeing as I had just caught another volunteer about to park himself on that very seat I had 'reserved' for myself - he has volunteered for many more years than myself at the Festival and so had also scoped out the very best place to sit.

From the very first note from Marsalis' soprano saxophone to the final breath of the encore the cathedral interior creates a sacred soundbox to what can only be described as heavenly jazz tones, flooding the entirety of the divine space. Without need for loudspeakers, microphones or amplifiers. Marsalis is at one with his surroundings as his hushed audience inwardly gasp whilst notes of pure gold tumble, float and spin from his instruments, reaching into the furthest corners of the Norman nave.

We may not know the names of all the pieces he selects to play for us - there is no programme, and no introductions, but we pick out some Mozart and some Bach, as well as compositions that draw from the world of swing, blues, gospel, and the avant-garde. It is a master-class from the master-craftsman, a man who has a sparkle in his eye and is clearly here for his own spiritual satisfaction. We are mere witnesses to the process, here to pay our respects.

There is an interval. As Marsalis explains, "I don't normally take a twenty minute break, but then I don't normally play on my own. I need to give these chops a break". He is smiling as he walks past us, and it the smile of a humble man who is clearly enjoying himself.

The second half is supposed to be shorter than the first, but Marsalis is having none of it. As my shift-end time of 9.30pm comes and passes he is still going strong. A contemporary composition sees him extracting notes that you would not have believed possible from a saxophone. In recognition of such mastery the cathedral answers back, the notes ricocheting and echoing around the ancient stonework before returning and becoming part of the performance. The sound of church bells from a nearby parish is greeted with a wry smile and a raised eyebrow before being mimicked and copied into the Marsalis flow. A sticking reed is replaced mid-song, and a mouthpiece is dropped in the process of freeing it. No big deal. No flurry of activity from off-stage road crew. There is merely a momentary silence whilst Marsalis coolly attends to the issue, and then we are straight back.

An encore is given, and for the first time the audience forgets itself and begins to clap along to a gospel inspired rendition of 'When The Saints Go Marching In'. No, Norwich will not be forgetting this evening in a hurry, and the Normans who began building the Cathedral in 1096AD may allow themselves a moment of reflected glory for providing us with such an awe-inspiring venue and heritage.

Tickets for remaining events at this year's Norfolk and Norwich Festival can be booked through

For more about Branford Marsalis, visit

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