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Author: Paul Wells
Date: July 2, 2014
Saxophonist Branford Marsalis is playing in Ottawa this Saturday to open the Music and Beyond Festival. In the first half he’ll perform as a soloist with the National Arts Centre Orchestra, playing Alexander Glazunov’s concerto for alto saxophone. After intermission the orchestra will clear out and Marsalis will play jazz with his quartet.
He’s appearing more and more often as an orchestral soloist lately, but does he often do this thing where he plays both classical and jazz in the same night? “No, I don’t do it ever, really,” Marsalis told me the other day over the phone from his home in North Carolina. “No one else ever asked me to do that. So it never happened.”
Is it hard to switch between classical and jazz contexts? “It used to be more difficult 10 years ago when I first started playing [classical music], because I had to marshal so much of my brain to focus in on playing. Everything was just so fast, you know. Now that my brain is able to process the information, slow it down a bit so it’s not as bad as it used to be, you know, my focus is better. I don’t feel as overwhelmed in that environment as I did 10 years ago.”
Some people might be surprised that for the three-time Grammy winner, who first rose to public notoriety in his brother Wynton Marsalis’s quintet more than 30 years ago, it’s the classical music that poses a challenge. After all, classical music is written down, you get to rehearse every note before you perform for an audience — what’s the problem?
My question was intentionally naive, designed to provoke, and it worked a charm. “Well, most people that would say that know absolutely nothing about classical music,” Marsalis said. “They don’t understand what it’s like to be in that pit. The similar thing would be, I’ve had the joy of watching people watch soccer and say, ‘What’s the big deal? You run around. You kick a little ball. It’s not like American football where you’ve got to hit people and you’ve got to do this.’ And I say, ‘Well let’s go play.’ I called a friend of mine in California, we joked about it. We went out to play. And none of us was good but we were playing. And he said, ‘I gotta tell you man, I’m humbled. I didn’t think I was going to survive it.’ And I said, ‘Well, that remains to be seen, man. That’s just the first half.’ ”Similarly, the challenges of notated music may seem overrated, if you spend your life improvising — but only so long as you don’t actually take on those challenges.
“The myth about classical music is that jazz is always improvised and classical music is always written in stone,” Marsalis said. “Well… I mean, all music is like all language. The Canadians and the Americans and the Australians and the New Zealanders are all bound by a common language. Or should I say, we are separated by a common language.” Inflection and cadence are personal, context is cultural, and all of it can introduce nuance into a conversation, whatever the langauge.
“How long or how short you make a word, how you make a word, changes the context of the word. How much emphasis you put on a certain word. It’s like the old comedian who did variations on the word ‘Dude.’ It’s like, if you’re excited, you say ‘Dude!’ If somebody does something [messed] up, you say ‘Dude.’ It’s one word and it has all these meanings. That’s the beauty of music.
To read the rest of the writer’s interview with Branford Marsalis, please visit Maclean’s.com.