Branford Marsalis and the Ciompi Quartet premiere marc faris' Mountain Music | Music Feature | Indy Week
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Branford Marsalis and the Ciompi Quartet premiere marc faris' Mountain Music 

The Ciompi Quartet with Branford Marsalis
World premiere of marc faris' "Mountain Music" for String Quartet and Saxophone
Saturday, Nov. 18, 8 p.m.
Duke University's Page Auditorium
Tickets: $20
First Course concert
Thursday, Nov. 16, 5:30 p.m.
Tickets: $5

click to enlarge Meeting the challenge: Branford Marsalis (left) and marc faris
  • Meeting the challenge: Branford Marsalis (left) and marc faris

When the muse is elusive, the artist has to be mobile, like a moth chasing down a flash of light. For local composer marc faris, it meant a solitary stay in a mountain cabin. For Branford Marsalis—a Grammy-winning jazz saxophonist—it meant diving headlong into the classical tradition after moving to Durham five years ago.

When Marsalis and the Ciompi Quartet combine to perform the world premiere of faris' latest work, Mountain Music, on Saturday, the work of these two musicians testing themselves while chasing the muse will coalesce.

It's been a long time coming: faris received a commission for a new piece in 2004 from the Ciompi Quartet, but scheduling conflicts delayed early work. He didn't develop the form or the frame of the piece until this summer while perched atop Pompey's Knob, a mountain near Little Switzerland, N.C. By then, he had learned that familiarity with the eventual performer could lend strength to the composition at hand: faris has been a longtime fan of Marsalis and his exquisite soprano saxophone tone, and he has a long relationship with the Ciompi Quartet, which has performed several of his previous compositions. While the quartet is widely known for traveling the world playing classics, it also has a reputation for seeking out challenging new works, like faris' rhythmically charged piece. He knew he had to take advantage of those strengths.

Likewise, Marsalis, as the performer, took the work as a chance for a new challenge: "It upsets my comfort zone, and that's good for me. I wanted to learn a body of music that was outside of [jazz]," he says of his work with the Ciompi Quartet. Marsalis started playing classical music six years ago to push his technique outside of the scales-oriented jazz mindset to which he was accustomed. "Musicians gravitate towards things that play to their strengths. Kenny G is not expected to go out and play a concertino. All of it is naturally against your comfort zone."

Moving to Durham gave Marsalis the chance to work with a chamber group consistently and to seek new ways for classical music to be included in jazz. He wouldn't have had that chance in a larger metropolis, he says, because the playing situation is so much different. "I'm redefining my technical approach to the instrument," he adds. When he began his classical training, he "couldn't negotiate a downbeat. You kind of hit around the downbeat in jazz, but in an orchestral setting you need a precision."

On that mountain last summer, faris found himself gazing out of a window into limitless space, sun-kissed treetops crowning at an edge of deep blue. He was looking for te right piece for his performers. faris had been awarded a residency at Wildacres Retreat near the Blue Ridge Parkway, and he was writing music between 16 and 18 hours every day, sitting at a piano with manuscript paper. Marsalis and the quartet would embrace his rhythmic style. He knew that, but what should be at the root of it all? Ultimately, he found a combination of composing for the group and infusing his own insights would lead to the best work.

"With Branford, I knew he would take it and do something," says faris. "He has such a velvety, sweet tone. When I idealize the soprano saxophone, this is what I hear ... I didn't think he wanted me to write him a 'jazz piece.' This was a way for him to do another classical piece."

In his Owl's Nest Cabin at Wildacres, faris finally started to find meaning in what he was writing: He'd grown up at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia, so this was, in some sense, a return home. He started to cherish the "acoustically rich and echoey" sensation of hearing things across a mountain, a reference he'd remembered from the writing of composer George Crumb. That became the piece's first movement. And one sentence from Kerouac's Dharma Bums—"Come on, you can't run off a mountain"—suddenly began to resonate. The second movement had to be a dance.

But the piece still needed its center, its heart. "I was on my own for the first time since the birth of my daughter," faris says. One day, he took a longer hike than usual. He heard a melody in his head, one he and his wife had been singing to their newborn during a phone call back to Durham. After that epiphany, he wrote feverishly. "And all the emotion hit me, this aching love. It became sort of a lullaby to her."

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