The metamorphosis of Branford Marsalis
When you hear a musician use his voice or instrument to convey an emotion, is the way it is expressed really authentic to the artist’s personality?
“Sometimes a musician’s performance reflects their personality,” saxophonist Branford Marsalis told The Daily Yomiuri in a recent phone interview. “People create an image of themselves, and they present the image. So, when you hear Miles Davis play ‘Old Folks’, or when he plays ‘Someday My Prince Will Come,’ that’s the real him. And this personality that he invented, where he calls everybody mother f–er, hits people and all of that, that’s not the real him. But he felt that necessary to hide the real him, and I don’t know why.”
Marsalis, 49, was born in New Orleans into what has become one of jazz’s preeminent musical families. He has played with a veritable who’s who of jazz legends, including Herbie Hancock, Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis.
“But the only really important thing is that when he [Miles] played music, he was emotionally sincere. It would be nice if he could be like that in real life. But you know what? As long as we have the music that’s OK,” he says.
The Branford Marsalis Quartet’s latest album, Metamorphosen (“metamorphosis” in German)—a title which, according to his Web site, refers to “the evolution of both his venerable ensemble and each individual member”—may provide a bit of insight into how he approaches music.
“It was one of those situations where I hadn’t paid attention to the fact that it had been two years since we recorded. So I just told the guys [in my band] we’re gonna make a record and to bring in whatever material they had,” says Marsalis, who will play the Blue Note in Tokyo on March 5-9.
He explains that his band listens to all kinds of music and is prepared to play anything at any time, including songs they don’t yet know.
His try-everything attitude goes beyond recording the new album. Since his debut in the 1980s, the Grammy-winning jazzman has collaborated with musicians from a wide variety of genres; he has played with orchestras, hip-hop artists and rock musicians, including Sting, with whom he spent two years recording and touring. He also is well known for his years as the band leader on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.
“[Critics say] ‘You’re not afraid to try new things.’ It’s not about fear. If you have people who don’t have an ability to succeed [when] doing different things, then why should they try? Why should a classical musician try to play jazz if they know that they’re not very good at it?
“OK, I’m a strange person. I rely on my ears a lot and I know how to hear and I’ve learned a lot of all these different things and I try to be unique in all of them. But it doesn’t mean that everybody else should do that.”
Marsalis says he usually knows right away whether or not he has a talent for something—football, he says, is not one of his talents. Yet it was Branford’s younger brother Wynton, himself a well-known trumpet player, who discovered Branford’s jazz prowess.
“He [Wynton] believed that I could play well and I should play. My dad [pianist Ellis Marsalis] believed that music is very difficult to play when you like it. So, if you’re not sure you wanna play, then you shouldn’t play.
“I didn’t really like jazz much back then. And I was going to school, studying to become a schoolteacher,” Marsalis says. “Wynton would call me everyday and tell me, ‘You need to be playing music, you don’t really need to be doing that.’”
At that time, he was listening to pop music and rhythm and blues because he enjoyed the focus on melody. But his younger brother felt that Marsalis had a good ear for music and invited him to play in New York. Inspired to listen to jazz, Marsalis says he encountered musicians such as Louis Armstrong, Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock, whose strong melodic sense and sound were something he could easily identify with.
Marsalis studied at the famed Berklee College of Music in Boston, and has played with a number of jazz legends. But his diverse musical tastes triggered arguments with Wynton, especially after Branford worked with Sting on the latter’s first solo album.
“Wynton’s argument was just that jazz is such a difficult music to play and there are so few people that play it well that jazz was hurt by me not playing jazz more than pop music would be by me not playing with Sting. And I said, ‘Well, I don’t disagree with that—to a degree. But you’re forgetting about the fact that this is some s– that I want to do. So it doesn’t really matter what jazz wants when it comes to me. This is just opposing points of view,’” he recalls, adding that he’s glad the arguments he has with his brothers are more substantial and philosophical than, “Why didn’t you replace the toothpaste?”
While the saxophonist has played with many legends of the past, he also is hoping to foster the legends of the future. In 2002, he founded Marsalis Music, a record label whose raison d’etre is to be home to new and talented musicians. He also has been teaching music at universities.
“I think that most of the students that play jazz now in America, the reason that they like playing jazz is because they get to solo. They get to improvise. They don’t really like playing jazz, they don’t like swing, they don’t like playing the melodies together. Their focus is always on playing chord changes…Not about listening to music or liking music. The only music they listen to are the musicians who play like they do.
“I used to think it was sad. But then, most of them—that’s the only way they know how to play. They couldn’t play any other way. Now, what I think is that it would be really sad for me if I played like them. I’m just glad that I don’t,” he says.
Throughout his nearly three-decade career, he has gone from being the new face in a music tradition steeped in lore to an established musician teaching the next generation about that history. But he really does not feel the change, he says.
“In your life you change, but it’s happening in real time. So you don’t really know that your changing unless you look back on it. And I don’t spend much time looking back,” he says.