INTERVIEW: Jazz saxophonist Branford Marsalis talks about focusing on emotion 

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In addition to playing with giants like Art Blakey and Miles Davis, he's spent years touring with solo-era Sting, performed with Harry Connick Jr. and the Grateful Dead, and fronted the jazz-rock-funk mash-up Buckshot LeFonque.

He also acted in movies and on TV and led "The Tonight Show" band in the early Jay Leno years. But saxophonist Branford Marsalis's four-decade-and-counting career colors far outside the lines of the jazz tradition he embodies and defends.

His eclectic genre-transgressing career was in sharp contrast to his slightly younger, equally virtuosic but more conservative brother Wynton. But if Wynton was more of a household name, Branford was always cooler and edgier, the Rolling Stones to his brother's Beatles, or at least the Lennon to his McCartney.

The onetime young lion is now 58, leading a quartet that has mostly been together since the turn of the century. The newest member, drummer Justin Faulkner, joined in 2009. Its most recent recording is "Upward Spiral," a 2016 collaboration with premier jazz singer Kurt Elling. On March 1, it is releasing "The Secret Between the Shadow and the Soul," its first all-instrumental recording in seven years.

Style spoke by phone with Marsalis, who is performing at the University of Richmond on Feb. 15. There is an extended portion of the interview following the article.

Style Weekly: The new album title is from Pablo Neruda's "Sonnet XVII." How does it relate to the music?

Branford Marsalis: I just like the way it sounds. I play instrumental music, so it doesn't have to have any meaning. All of the songs on the record are about emotions, they are not about data. The first song is angry and aggressive. The second song is melancholy. The third song is happy. I can't remember what the fourth song is. I read a lot of poetry for enjoyment. Certain things jump out at me. I don't question it, I just know it. I thought it was a really cool-ass phrase.

When people talk about love they always talk about it sophomorically. It requires a certain amount of depth of thought to use words to talk about the unknown things. It takes a really talented person to use words to describe what words can't describe. You have to have a super-vivid imagination, which he clearly did. The writing is quite beautiful, in a way that is surprising.

You've said that working with singers like Kurt Elling has made your own playing more concise.

Well, we got better is all. Playing with Kurt was great for the group. I had been in singing bands before, the rest of the guys hadn't. You have to suddenly play a solo that gets to the point and gets out. You can't play too long, or you kill the momentum.

We focus on emotion. The music system is limited … like having a language that only has 12 syllables. You only have 12 notes. You can put them in all these combinations, but it is still the same 12 notes. There are languages without a tremendous number of syllables. They are complicated to understand. What a word means is based on where it is put and how it is said.

The change in your band is a continuous process?

If you have the right musicians, yes. … A lot of players learn a particular style and then force it on every situation. You need to have people who are musically curious enough and disciplined enough to allow whatever you are doing to change the way they perceive sound. I am lucky that Eric, Joey and Justin are fantastic players, but on top of that fantastic musicians. They were happy to do this for a while. There is an inflection point, then you can't wait to get out and play again. Everything is changed.

How do you keep the audience engaged?

My dad told me when I was 15 and playing in an R&B band, that most audiences are the same, they hear with their eyes. It was entertainment. It was the '80s, so we had costumes and I had to learn dance steps. That is something I am not good at. I always tried to hide behind the better dancers.

It's the same now. After a show people come up and say that they didn't understand what we played, but they loved seeing us have so much fun playing it.

They could tell there was information flying back and forth. But they can't tell you what the information is, but my argument is that they shouldn't have to. It may always be a challenging listen, but we will always play a couple of songs that everyone can totally relate to.

The Branford Marsalis Quartet plays the Modlin Center on Feb. 15 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets cost $45, with discounts for seniors, groups and students.

Extended interview:

How did you choose the covers that are included on the CD?

Branford Marsalis: The song, the way it sounds and what it represents. The Andrew Hill song [“Snake Hip Waltz”] is a happy song. It is quirky because it is in ¾ and what he tried to do is write a series of three-bar phrases in a society where we write four-bar phrases for everything. He couldn’t get all the way to the end without writing a four-bar phrase, but the trying was really cool. We needed a song that had that happy go-lucky emotion.

And “Windup,” the Keith Jarrett composition from his European band?

Eight years ago when my daughter was ten, she was sitting at the kitchen table and I was playing “Well You Needn’t” from the album “Monk’s Music.” I was listening to it, trying to come up with this serious idea about Monk’s music. She’s not a jazz kid, but she said “Who’s that? I like this song. It sounds happy.”

It had never occurred to me to apply emotion to the data I’d been studying. The more I listened I was like, shit, it is happy. If you listen to modern jazz, it’s anything but happy, it’s cynical. That one interaction made me listen differently. I can hear that the song is happy.

I think [Keith Jarrett’s] group was more interested in playing it in the Ornette Coleman style. Keith spent a lot of time listening to Ornette. There are a couple of YouTube videos of him playing saxophone that are interesting. He is a hell of a good saxophone player. They were trying to play a style that they hadn’t listened to or studied a lot. They were playing to not make mistakes, very defensively.

I always said this was one of those great songs I would like to play. I was listening to the record one day on the plane [and] I took out my pencil and sketched it out. Filled it in when I got to the piano at the gig, and said we are playing this tomorrow night. Everyone knows it already, it is a refresher course, we have all heard it enough times. Justin put this New Orleans beat on it. He was living in New Orleans, working on a film that is probably never going to come out. But he met some of the great drummers who were there. They taught him this New Orleans beat. It was great, do your thing. The arrangements happen organically with us. We play songs, you have to allow things to happen. I am happy doing that. The guys are creative.

I learned a lot listening to Jan [Garbarek]. Particularly that melancholy shit. The tone is a little sharp for my ear, but the stuff he is playing. It is some happy-ass music. The good thing about emotion: We are playing some crazy shit, but we play it happily, so it sounds happy.

We are a big listening band. Our sound vocabulary is huge. Modern players rely more on harmonic vocabulary than sound vocabulary. We have a lot of sonic references we can draw from. As a result, we can take a song and make it sound really big, or really small. We have a lot of sonic options that [the Keith Jarrett band] didn’t have. They existed in one particular space, even if it was a really cool-ass space. [Our quartet] can occupy lots of different space.

Why was there such a long break between Quartet albums?

We have been working steadily, but it is foolish to send a lot of jazz records out there. Jazz records don’t sell a lot anyway. Throwing them out eight months apart really cripples your chances of selling anything. So we did the “Four MFs Playin’ Tunes” record, and then a solo record, that I never expected to come out. We switched distributors, they wanted something new and that was the only product we had. I didn’t even know if it was good or not. That wasn’t a musical choice, it was a political necessity.

After that came the Kurt Elling record. It wasn’t a deliberate thing, but we had to give come air between releases. Ironically as a band we needed some time anyway. When you do a project like the Kurt record it completely changed the DNA of the band. When we started playing the tunes, we were trying to play them like it was 2015, but it was 2017. We couldn’t go back. We had to give the music some time to figure out our new sound.

Does that kind of experience always reshape the band concept?

If you have the right musicians, yes. [Maybe not] if you don’t. A lot of players learn a particular style and then force it on every situation. You need to have people who are musically curious enough and disciplined enough to allow whatever you are doing to change the way they perceive sound. I am lucky that Eric [Revis], Joey [Calderazzo], and Justin [Faulkner] are fantastic players, but on top of that, they are fantastic musicians. They were happy to [work on the new approach] for a while. There is an inflection point, then you can’t wait to get out and play again. Everything is changed.

A lot of guys, their version of change is not through jazz. They move to New York to play jazz. He plays in clubs and makes a jazz record. The first record doesn’t sell. He makes a second record. Second record doesn’t sell. The third record is a funk record, which will not sell because he is not a funk player. But there is this thing that jazz guys believe, that anything with a backbeat sells. There are literally millions of records over the last 45 years that verify that everything with a backbeat does not sell, but there is this weird mindset that people who have gone from jazz to playing popular sounds, while never having done that in their lives, and are not connected to it in anyway, that music has no choice but to come across as cynical. It is not an earnest decision.

Having grown up playing classical music first, popular music second, and jazz music third, I thought that any kind of change in the band must come through jazz. Not playing another style of music and calling it jazz.

Funk is the new swing? Everybody has to do it the way they need to do it. I think there is an established sound to jazz that has existed for 100 years. Now you have a bunch of people who don’t like jazz, but like the idea of liking jazz. So they will like jazz as long as it has improv and a beat they are familiar with. There are people who do that and do quite well for themselves. Bravo to them .... When Herbie Hancock did “Headhunters,” that is not a jazz record. For a lot of my friends it was. There was no way to explain to them why it was not a jazz record. Then I have to sit down and make them listen for months to music they can’t stand. Then they come to the realization that “maybe this is not a jazz record, but I like this better.” Which is fine. I am not saying everyone should like the music.

But there is a this whole pattern that has existed since I was a kid. They like calling jazz a big tent, but one of the key tenets of the big tent is that the thing that is actually called jazz they know nothing about. They think it should be jazz because they like it.

It’s not a war you can win. Not a war [I'm] interested in winning. I am just interested in getting with my guys and playing. How I feel about it is expressed in our records and how we play on the gigs ...

When my pipes go bad, I call the plumber. They don’t ask me how to do it. We need to lay this music. It is our job to communicate to them. They pay us money, they go home happy.

But there are a lot of musicians that somehow believe that their music is so sophisticated that it is above the heads of most people, and it is incumbent on people to rise up to where they are. That is the most unsuccessful formula I have ever heard. You can read articles about the musicians that jazz writers say are really great, go to the concerts and they are half empty.

Because if a musician really is a genius- and I hate that word- they will find their way to get their point across, no matter how complicated- to people, regular people.

That is the challenge, not developing some system that no one can decipher. The attention in jazz tends to go to that nerdy way of thinking. So, the music writ large is put in this position where people say they hate jazz, but it is not jazz they hate but the way people play it. It may always be a challenging listen, but we will always play a couple of songs that everyone can totally relate to. We are here to play for you. We will give you some of our thoughts, but we will also play things you can completely identify with. We do both.

Back in the day, Wynton was the approachable Beatles and you were the edgier Rolling Stones.

Right. Although I like the Beatles better than the Rolling Stones. But I hear you.

It took me a while to get to the Stones. I am there now, I get it. If you sit around and study music all day long, and study structure. What is the [complex] song structure of a Beatles tune in comparison to the Rolling Stones’ most simple structure? The irony was that when I was a kid, I was playing R&B and rock and roll, all simple structures. When I was in school, I was learning all this other stuff.

We all come around, or we should. Most of the times I use the Rolling Stones in my music class, rather than the Beatles.

Who thinks Keith Richards is a great guitar player? No one. Suppose you say I have a song that is almost good, and I need a lick that is so infectious that it will take it right over the top? Who do you get? The better guitar player? No, you get Keith Richards. That’s what the music is about.

Steve Vai is certainly a better guitar player, but most people would want to be Keith Richards.



More by Peter McElhinney

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