Jazz to classical, Branford Marsalis does it all
Publication: UT San Diego
Author: George Varga
Date: August 4, 2012
Saxophone star Branford Marsalis is not the first jazz artist who will perform a classical music repertoire at SummerFest in La Jolla, but he is by far the most celebrated and best known. Credit for this goes to his multiple Grammy Awards in both jazz and pop, his high-profile TV stint in the 1990s as the band leader and musical director on “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno,” and his acting in the films “Throw Momma From the Train” and “School Daze.”
But what really makes this Louisiana native stand out is his ability to shine in almost any musical setting. Accordingly, his Wednesday concert at Sherwood Auditorium will feature works by such uncompromising composers as Hindemith, Barber and Busch, as well as a series of improvisation-fueled jazz duets with bassist Eric Revis.
An artist for all seasons, the eclectic saxophonist has appeared as a soloist with the New York Philharmonic, the Chicago Symphony and other top orchestras around the world on works by Mahler, Copland, Debussy and Milhaud. He has scored two Broadway plays, last year’s “The Mountain Top” and the 2010 revival of August Wilson’s “Fences” (for which Marsalis’ music earned a Tony Award nomination). And he has collaborated with an array of artists so stylistically diverse that it’s difficult to think of any other saxophonist, in or out of jazz, who even comes close.
In addition to dozens of jazz greats, the list of Marsalis’ past musical partners includes Sting, the Grateful Dead and fellow New Orleans native Harry Connick Jr., along with West African singer Angélique Kidjo, the pioneering hip-hop group Public Enemy and dance-pop favorites Black Eyed Peas. He has also worked with everyone from Tina Turner, The Allman Brothers Band and banjo great Béla Fleck to Stevie Wonder, James Taylor and Crosby, Stills & Nash.
What, then, does the saxophonist who can play nearly anything exceedingly well like to perform to get his creative juices flowing?
“I’m always grateful for the opportunity when my weaknesses are exposed, because there are no other opportunities to eliminate them,” said Marsalis, 51, who rose to prominence in the early 1980s as the saxophonist in the quintet of his trumpet-playing brother, Wynton.
“I don’t do a lot of chamber music concerts. I’m lucky if I get to do 10 a year, which is one of the things that makes it hard to improve. You practice your behind off and, after a while, you have to start playing (concerts). I’m a decade into it, so I’m in a much better place than when I started.”
Marsalis earned rave reviews and impressive sales for his 1986 album “Romances for Saxophone,” which featured him interpreting the music of such disparate composers as Ravel, Stravinsky, Satie and Villa-Lobos on soprano sax. It was nearly 16 years until he recorded another classically oriented album, “Eternal,” which featured Minnesota’s acclaimed Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. But he is quick to distinguish between the two releases, which followed brother Wynton’s historic, back-to-back Grammy victories in the mid-1980s for both Best Jazz Album and Best Classical Album. “Christine Reed, who was Wynton’s manager, heard me practicing classical saxophone and thought it was the prettiest sound she’d ever heard,” the saxophonist recalled. “She asked me: ‘Could you do a classical record?’ I said: ‘No, I’m not good enough.’ Then she said: ‘What about a “pretty melody” (classical) record?’ I said: ‘Well, that I could do.’
“At the time I was doing Sting’s ‘Bring on the Night’ album (in Paris). And every night, after I was done working with Sting, I’d go (study) with (classical saxophonist) Hervé Sellin and we’d work on the music (for ‘Romances’). We’d work on (my) lyricism, and we’d talk about German expressionism versus French and Russian expressionism.
“It was great to work with (famed French composer/arranger) Michel Colombier, but I never considered ‘Romances’ classical, per se. It was just me playing pretty melodies, with a (sax) mouth piece that was way too big and no nuance in my sound. But there is something that exists in that sound that people related to and liked.”
Marsalis was also unsatisfied with his playing on “Creation.” This prompted him to begin intensive studies with Harvey Pittel to improve his range of expression, accuracy and overall proficiency as a classical saxophonist.
He and Pittel, a professor of saxophone at the University of Texas at Austin, would spend up to six hours a day working together. Marsalis then spent “several years” absorbing Pittel’s lessons and honing his classical saxophone approach and technique.
“I’m about 500 percent better now, although there are still things I’d like to work on,” he said. “The reason I got to do ‘Creation’ is because ‘Romances’ sold so well. ‘Creation’ didn’t, but it opened entrees for me in ways ‘Romances’ never did. It’s because of ‘Creation’ that I’m doing this gig in La Jolla.”
Marsalis grew up playing classical, jazz and funk in New Orleans, then began studying at the Berklee College of Music. He was barely out of his teens when he began working in the bands of such jazz luminaries as drummer Art Blakey, trumpeter Clark Terry and vibraphonist Lionel Hampton.
While others made distinctions between jazz, classical and popular music, Marsalis never did.
“That divide clearly exists, but not in my mind, because I wasn’t raised to believe it did or with the idea of having to choose between them,” he said. “In high school, I played in an R&B band (The Creators). My father was stunned when I told him I was going to play jazz because I had shown no interest in it up to then. The saxophone solo by Don Myrick from Earth, Wind & Fire’s live album, which was hard to play when I was 16, wasn’t so hard when I was 19. But (jazz sax pioneer) Lester Young’s solos were hard as hell to play, as were (John) Coltrane’s and Sonny (Rollins’).
“I’m lucky enough to have grown up in a city where there were all kinds of different cultures swirling around. I played in the youth symphony and the jazz band. I’m very grateful that I didn’t have a boxed mindset and that every time somebody said: ‘Check this (new) thing out,’ I would. I still have a long way to go (with classical music), but I try to play it as authentically and with as much expression as I can.”Marsalis’ new album with his jazz quartet, “Four MFs Playin’ Tunes,” will be released Tuesday. An often combustible recording, it bristles with passion and offers an exemplary display of finely honed ensemble work, bristling solos and the dynamic art of tension and release.
“I think there’s a very unhealthy focus now on improvisation in jazz,” Marsalis said.
“In the early years of jazz, there was about was 15-20 percent and there were elements of group interplay, swing, the strong pulsating rhythm. These were the things audiences were attracted to. I think the reason many musicians are attracted to improvisation is that many of them have the desire to be seen and heard, and they are highly individualistic.
“So improvisation is a major focus of jazz musicians. You can tell from their body language, which shows they are waiting to solo and that they don’t have interest in the music the other guys are playing; they look down or stand on the side of the stage and look away. They don’t seem to be involved. If you look at old YouTube videos (of jazz artists) those guys were all digging their thing (collectively). The game wasn’t: ‘My solo! My solo!’ That kind of (selfish approach) reminds me of the basketball players in the 1980s who made a lot of money playing on teams that perpetually lost.”