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CT.com Interview: Saxophonist Branford Marsalis
Author: Michael Hamad
Date: February 4, 2013
In his 52 short years on this planet, what hasn’t saxophonist Branford Marsalis done? Composing Broadway scores and movie soundtracks; recording with Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Herbie Hancock, Sonny Rollins, Art Blakey and his brother Wynton; running the Tonight Show band, when Jay Leno took over from Johnny Carson; jamming with the Grateful Dead (check out the exquisite “Eyes of the World” on Without a Net) and subsequently venturing out into the jam-band world with Buckshot LeFonque; teaching college; winning Grammys; starting a record label; bringing aid to his native New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina; leading his own quartet for more than a decade. (Whew.)
Sometime around 1996, Marsalis decided to make his quartet — longtime members Joey Calderazzo on piano and Eric Revis on bass, and relative newcomer, Justin Faulkner, on drums — his primary focus. Last year they released the aptly titled Four MFs Playin’ Tunes, which was named Best of 2012 Instrumental Jazz Album of the Year by Apple’s iTunes. He’ll bringing the powerful, musically telepathic group to UConn’s Jorgensen Center for a single night on Feb. 7.
Marsalis spoke to CT.com by phone about his new recording and the highlights of a long career in music.
Q: You’ve been with your quartet for more than a decade (drummer Justin Faulker came on board more recently). When rock groups are together for a long time, nobody bats an eyelash, but when it happens in the jazz world, it’s perceived as more of a rarity. What’s the secret behind keeping a band together?
A: Rock groups stay together for a variety of reasons, mostly that it’s a lot of money to walk away from if you become one of those groups. With a jazz group, all of the musicians have to see potential for growth. It’s counterintuitive, in a way… In popular music, once you develop a sound, you tend not to walk away from that sound. The change in concept comes from a new hairstyle or a new look, a new uniform… With certain things, the people who like the music are, generally speaking, very unforgiving when you start learning a bunch of music and adding new elements. That’s a bad thing.
I think that a lot of jazz groups have latched onto that idea of trying to define what your sound is and sticking to it. But I have always not really been a fan of that, which is why I would make, in long run, a lousy pop musician. In the short run, I could do okay. But everybody in the band knows that I’m going to keep working and everybody in the band is continuing to work. We’re all on the same wavelength. The schedules allot for guys to leave and work with other bands and do other things and come back with those new ideas. I think that that’s a lot of it. We have a really good band, and a very versatile band.
Q: If you look at what your band will play together a week from now, and you listen back to eight or nine years ago, can you hear a change? Do you hear a different level of interaction above and beyond the tunes that you do?
A: Not really interaction-wise. Musicians are still people, and some people don’t play well with others, and they become musicians anyway. Some people interact well, and personally we interact well, and in music we’re all on the same wavelength. I remember people I grew up with in New Orleans. We all interacted well. I started reading books that they didn’t read, and I was actually in a theater class and had to read plays. I had to learn how to become different characters, and it’s not whether or not you were good at it. That wasn’t the point. It was more about the exercise of it, to have to think in those terms. It changes the way you see the world. It changes the way that your brain operates. Gradually, over periods of time, there were friends of mine that it became more and more difficult to sustain long-term relationships with.
A lot of us go to reunion, and we talk about what we’re doing now and how we see the world. There’s always that group of guys where it seems like the best years of their lives were 1975 or 1976. They just want to talk about ’75 or ’76. There’s a musical parallel: it’s not that we’ve improved interaction, but we are all expanding our vocabularies at the same time. We’re bringing new ideas and new attitudes to the music.
Q: Is that a prerequisite, then, for who you choose to collaborate with? Do they need to be continually growing people, reading people, people who are curious about the world?
A: Yes, and they expect it from me as well. It’s not a one-way or a one-direction command, like “I expect you all to do that.” They expect that it out of me as well.
Q: I read that your latest quartet recording, Four MFs Playin’ Tunes, was released on vinyl in April of 2012, but not digitally until August. Are you a proponent of vinyl? Did you want the record to be out for a substantial period of time before it was available in digital form?
A: I didn’t set the release date policy. I have folks who deal with that. But the thing I felt strongly about — and I was able to win that argument — was that digital technology is great for jazz students. It’s great for me when I’m teaching kids. I can literally download a song for $.99 that I want them to hear at the moment. But it wouldn’t be a boon to jazz sales because a lot of the people who buy jazz records are audiophiles, and mp3 is easily the worst sound that there is, and you’d find few people who know about audio who would argue that point. So, my point would always be that I’m not saying no to mp3, I’m saying yes to vinyl, because a lot of the people who like what we do are probably going to be vinyl people than mp3 people. So, that was the decision, and it was a double thing, because there was an EP that was released digitally, so you could buy three songs digitally at that time, and the rest of the album came out in August.
Q: Last year was the 30th anniversary of a couple of your first major recordings, with Art Blakey and your brother, Wynton. I wondered if that was in your mind when you were recording the latest quartet album, if in any sense that was a celebration of that milestone.
A: No, I wasn’t even aware of that until you brought it up. But there was a funny thing that happened not too long ago. I was with a friend of mine who’s a jazz fan, and we were driving around New York. He puts on Black Codes [… (From the Underground), a 1985 album by Wynton Marsalis]. My first instinct, whenever I hear something with me on it, is “turn that shit off.” But I hadn’t heard it in awhile, so I said, “I’m just going to sit here. I’m not going to say a word, and I’m going to listen to this record from beginning to end.” When it was over, I sent Wynton a text message that said, “Man, I just heard Black Codes. Boy, we sure did suck.” And it took about 10 seconds for me to get a text back saying, “Didn’t we?” So that was ’85. I think there’s an early, early interview, and the guy was talking to me, saying, “I didn’t hear anything original in your sound.” And I said, “I’m 25 years old. You can’t expect that until I’m 40.” And I said, “I’m not really a jazz player. I’m just learning the music.” The great about my career is that all of these recordings will be a document of progress, or a lack of progress, one of the two. But I’m certainly not there. To me, when I hear the records, they’re a document of progress but not something that I’d want to listen to.
Q: 25 is so young. The older you get, the more you realize how little you knew and how much differently you’d do things.
A: I agree. And we live in a society that basically lionizes kids between the ages of 17 and 20, on the popular culture side… In popular culture, music is representative of something other than music. That’s the part that, as a musician, you have to get used to, the idea that the music is a metaphor, whereas in jazz and what we’re doing, the music is the music. It’s not a metaphor for anything. It should be about the music. You can get side-tracked in any profession. The music can be a metaphor for life, or a metaphor for death, or it can be a metaphor for things like that, emotional responses. But the idea of the music being a metaphor for success, for currency, for popularity, for the thing that makes us all feel like we’re all with the times — it’s a strange concept to me. It was even a strange concept to me when I was a younger person, that you would have people who would readily praise things that they don’t understand, and don’t really try to understand. To them, how they feel about a certain group is as factual as the sun rising in the east in the morning. “Clearly, this is the greatest group ever.” Well, why? “Because I say so, because I like them.” It’s hard to discuss music with people like that, so I stopped.”