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Author: Bill Milkowski
To say that Branford Marsalis is forthcoming is an understatement. In an age when athletes, politicians and public figures have all been schooled in the art of saying nothing but innocuous platitudes intended to offend no one and reveal nothing, the three-time Grammy winner unapologetically speaks his mind. A veritable quote machine, he spews pointed statements like a verbal Gatling gun.
Being approachable, talkative and extremely opinionated makes Marsalis an ideal interview subject. Essentially, all you have to do is press the “record” button, toss in an occasional query, stand back and let him roll. And he never disappoints. Ask him anything and the ideas—grounded in logic, full of intelligence and wit and brimming with a daredevil disregard for the run-of-the-mill—come cascading off his tongue without hesitation, like his much-vaunted tenor and soprano sax playing.
On the day of this phone interview, the eldest of the five Marsalis brothers was at his home in Durham, N.C., preparing for a classical recital at the Beethoven Festival in Winona, Minn. His new quartet outing, the wryly titled Four MFs Playin’ Tunes (Marsalis), had just come out. His 23rd outing as a leader, it’s the first to feature young drumming sensation Justin Faulkner, who replaced Marsalis’ longtime drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts in 2009. It also comes on the heels of 2011’s Songs of Mirth and Melancholy (Marsalis), Branford’s intimate ballads album with pianist Joey Calderazzo, who replaced the late Kenny Kirkland in the Branford Marsalis Quartet in 1998.
“We’ve gone through what we needed to, as people and as musicians, to be at the top of our game,” says the 2011 NEA Jazz Master of his quartet’s current offering. “So now we can just play good tunes.”
JAZZTIMES: You mentioned that you were about to go into shedding mode for a classical recital?
BRANFORD MARSALIS: I’m already in it. It’s my first recital, at the age of 51. I’m preparing pieces that most people have never heard of, unless you’re a saxophone player. I’m doing “Sonata for Alto Saxophone” by Paul Creston, “Concerto for Alto Saxophone” by Ingolf Dahl and “Sonata for Alto Saxophone and Piano” by Robert Muczynski. I’m also doing “Sonata for Soprano Saxophone and Piano” by Lawson Lunde, and then there are a bunch of songs by Beethoven and Samuel Barber that I’m going to perform. That’s for the Beethoven Festival in Winona, Minn. The week following that, I’m doing two performances at the World Saxophone Congress in Scotland. For that one, I’m playing one piece on soprano and tenor and the other piece on soprano.
JT: Has listening to all this classical music so intensely affected how you hear and play jazz?
Marsalis: Definitely. When you play music that is outside of your comfort zone and you’re forced to actually deal with it, then your comfort zone expands. So then in your soloing, you become less likely to rely on a handful of devices that you have, which some people choose to mark as their identifiable sound. I’ve never been really obsessed with an identifiable sound because I just believe either you have one or you don’t have one. The idea of inventing one by playing five things over and over again was just low on my list. If I were going to do that, I would’ve stayed in pop music. So dealing with classical music expands your comfort zone, so then you have more control over the instrument. And it allows you to play in a more dramatic fashion on ballads. With the band, we all listen to varying degrees of classical music, and we play with a lot more dynamic range because of that than we did in the ’80s.
To read the entire interview between Branford and Bill Milkowski, please visit the JazzTimes website or pick up the October 2012 issue of the magazine.