Publication: Seattle Times
Author: Andrew Gilbert
Branford Marsalis is one of the biggest names in jazz, a midcareer master who’s maintained an enviable level of visibility for nearly three decades.
But the sardonic tenor and soprano saxophonist isn’t much impressed by personal accolades. As a musician, he’s devoted to a group concept that puts a premium on free-flowing interaction, a powerfully kinetic sound marked by breakneck tempo shifts and odd meters. It’s the kind of approach that can only be developed through long hours on the bandstand — and his band has clearly put in the time.
Marsalis’ quartet opens a four-night run at Jazz Alley on Thursday.
“The American ethos praises the individual,” says Marsalis, 47, from his home in Durham, N.C. “In music it translates into an obsession with being a genius, inventing a style, all those things. I’ve always been blessed with the marvelous gift of not being too ambitious. The hard part is to get everyone to embrace the idea that the music’s not about them. We’re just a bunch of conduits.”
Rather than self-consciously striving to break new ground, Marsalis concentrates on creating room for his band to thrive. Featuring the prodigious pianist Joey Calderazzo and supple bassist Eric Revis, the quartet marks its 10-year milestone with the release of “Metamorphosen” (Marsalis Music), a thrilling CD that came out earlier this week, with tunes contributed by every member.
The group’s protean drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts isn’t participating on this West Coast tour, but Marsalis is taking the opportunity to present a remarkable drum prodigy Justin Faulkner. He first heard the 17-year-old Faulkner last year while conducting a tutorial with a high-school jazz band in Philadelphia, which he did at the request of his cousin Rodney Mack, the principal trumpeter with the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia.
“For the most part I don’t like listening to these high-school kids,” Marsalis says. “I tell them, you’re never going to get it if you don’t listen to more music, and they get mad at me. It’s the same old stuff. I could be golfing instead.”
Faulkner, however, stood out. “He’s just keeping time,” Marsalis recalls. “But he’s swinging like crazy. … He’s comping with all the little hits underneath the solos, that nuance that’s nonexistent today. Usually when one kid’s way better there’s a level of impatience, but I’m looking at his face, and he was focusing on making the music swing, no attitude at all.”
In many ways, Marsalis has stepped into the shoes of the veteran players who showed him the way as a young musician. He picked up enduring values about the importance of musicianship from artists hailed as revolutionary innovators, but rather than seeking individual glory, they worked within the context of ensembles with like-minded collaborators.
“I had the benefit of those old guys being alive, Art Blakey, Dizzy Gillespie, Walter Davis Jr., Walter Bishop,” Marsalis says. “It would have been a lot easier to just dismiss them. They’re from an older generation, and I’m playing the new thing. Everything old is passé, and we’re always looking for the next new thing.
“The next new thing in jazz is hidden in the old thing.”