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REVIEW: Saxophone Meets Pipe Organ: Branford Marsalis & Jean-Willy Kunz (Northrop)

Left: Jean-Willy Kunz standing amongst organ pipes (photo by Koralie Woodward); Branford Marsalis (photo by Palma Kolansky); and Jean-Willy Kunz at an organ console (photo by Antoine Saito).

If politics has its First Families, so does music. Branford Marsalis is a well-known member of the “First Family of Jazz”, a group including  his (pianist) father, Ellis, and younger brothers, Wynton (trumpet), Delfeayo (trombone), and Jason (drummer). He has arguably been the most wide-ranging of the Marsalis family in exploring musical options.

Wide-ranging? Branford has performed with Sting, The Grateful Dead, and Bruce Hornsby; composed music for Broadway; and served as Musical Director of The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. He has also earned 16 Grammy nominations and 3 Grammy awards, mostly for his jazz saxophone work. Like his brother Wynton, he has also earned respect for his classical work, including an excellent 2001 album Creation, where he performed with New York City’s Orpheus Chamber Orchestra.

Marsalis has been working for two years with Jean-Willy Kunz, a French-born Canadian organist, 20 years Marsalis’ junior. Kunz is Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal’s first Organist in Residence. Over the two years, though, this is only their third performance together, as it has proven difficult to find available dates between their busy performance and recording obligations. This evening, they combined their talents at Northrop Auditorium for a program mostly comprising classical pieces from the past century: works by Maxime Goulet, Louis Vierne, Henri Tomasi, Pedro Iturralde, Astor Piazzolla, Henry Martin, and Darius Milhaud.

The console for Northrop Auditorium’s recently restored Aeolian-Skinner pipe organ. Photo by Brian Bix.

The concert began with a solo by Kunz, Goulet’s “Citius, Altius, Fortius!” that showcased the full power of Northrop’s amazing – and recently restored – Aeolian-Skinner Organ. Kunz also played a solo in the second half of the concert, on Martin’s “Prelude and Fugue no. 11 in G-flat major.” The remainder of the songs were duets up until the very end, when the night finished with Marsalis playing solo saxophone in his own composition, “Blues for One” (a live recording appears on his 2014 album In my Solitude).

About halfway through, we got a taste of an entirely different concert this duo might have provided. As the musicians were about to start the second half, Marsalis realized that he had forgotten something, excused himself, and started to leave the stage. As he was leaving, he turned back to Kunz and shouted, “Play something, man!” After some hesitation, Kunz started playing a tune that was quickly recognized as “Fly Me to the Moon.” Returning, Marsalis – surprised but undaunted – picked up his saxophone and joined in. When the piece was concluded, Marsalis insisted that this was not planned. “Swing,” he explained, “broke out.”

Brian Bix

Brian H. Bix (Guest Contributor) grew up in the Twin Cities and is currently a Professor of Law and Philosophy at the University of Minnesota. He has published numerous articles in a wide range of venues.