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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 12, No. 8 May 2007

Branford Marsalis Frankly Speaking

by Marc Chénard / May 30, 2007

Version française...

Of all the stars shining over the jazz horizon the Marsalis constellation is clearly one of the best-known among jazz novices and experts alike. Of course, there is Wynton, the formidably gifted trumpeter out on his mission of extolling past glories of Black American music in the present tense, but there is also his father, pianist Ellis, younger brothers, trombonist Delfeayo and drummer Jason, and not least, his elder sibling by one year, tenor and soprano saxophonist Branford. Born in 1960, and a Crescent City native son (like the rest of the family) he has been part of the international scene since the late 1970s. In those early days, however, he was cutting his teeth on alto, which he played in Art Blakey’s Jazz Messenges, until Wynton urged him to switch over to tenor when the young brass phenom was starting up his hardbop-inspired quintet. After a roller-coaster decade where jazz had been shaken up by the successive upheavals of the New Thing and the machismo of Fusion, this return to former models rapidly became the object of close media scrutiny, with lines clearly drawn between those ready to take them to task for their revisionism and those out to champion their cause.

Although their careers were closely intertwined at one time, Branford and Wynton have carved their own paths since. If the latter has never erred from his musical mission, his brother has entertained more than one muse over the years, all of which have led him to affirm his place as a bonafide jazzman. Many frowned at his flirtations with pop, his collaborations with Sting, his tenure as musical director of Jay Leno’s talk show, not to overlook his funk band Buckshot Lafonque. That era is a closed book now. Reached last month at his home in Durham, North Carolina, he voices no regret at having gone down that road, nor at his decision to walk away from it.

“Through those experiences, I saw the kind of money available in the entertainment business, but now that I have walked away from those situations to play jazz, I figure, why don’t I just play jazz. If I sit around worrying about the business aspect of it, then I should have stayed where I was. I had opportunities to do quite well for myself, and turned those things down to play. For me, I play jazz both by vocation and avocation.”

Four in One

Marsalis has led his current quartet of classic jazz instrumentation for nine years now, a group composed of his longtime colleagues: drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts, bassist Eric Revis and pianist Joey Calderazzo, who stepped in after Kenny Kirkland passed away in 1998. In the past, this kind of exclusive commitment to a group by an artist was commonplace (Miles, Coltrane, Mingus, to name but three prominent examples); in today’s more precarious system, working-bands like this are more of the exception than the rule. Indeed, musicians now move around more, either in dividing their time between several groups, focusing on special projects or working as solo acts for hire. Although Marsalis thinks that playing in a single band does not necessarily enable one to reach a higher level of musicianship per se, he nevertheless adds that it has been beneficial in his own case:

“This particular group has enabled me to attain this, because we are all striving towards a shared goal. But we do not consider ourselves a finished product either, or all neatly packaged if you will. As for musicians who rove around from group to group, I think it serves multiple purposes. For one, you kind of think of yourself as an established sound, and your learning curve is kind of shortened at that point, so you can go out and peddle your wares from group to group. It allows you then to use the word ‘innovator’ or ‘innovation,’ without having to worry about comparisons. But if you have a group and stay with it long enough, comparisons ensue with those from the past. By being a solo artist and jumping around, you do not have to worry about that. You know, it is far more lucrative to play in superbands or be involved in special projects nowadays. And promoters seem more willing to pay you more money to do these things than having you appear with your own band, Keith Jarrett being the notable exception here.”

Setting the Record Straight

A mere five years ago, Branford Marsalis took a major step in controlling his artistic destiny by establishing Marsalis Music, his own label. Nevertheless, this event is not as crucial to him as one might believe, given the major labels’ general lack of interest in jazz. Sony, for one, simply closed its jazz department, dropping both of its star performers, the Marsalis brothers.

“When I was there, I pretty much did what I wanted to do anyway. I understood the power of saying no. I was only ready to travel down the road that interested me. Actually, most record companies aren’t interested in seeking out young artists and helping them develop. They want them to have some angle right from the start, and they’ll be pressured into doing funk records, and making really bad versions of it.”

The saxophonist, it must be added, is certainly well placed to express this opinion, because at the root of it, he is a funk and blues musician who decided to devote himself to jazz.

“The thing here that people don’t understand about me, except those who grew up with me, is that I am a pop artist who went into the jazz world. I was playing R&B when I was 14, not jazz. I did not go to the Jamie Aebersold camps, but played on Bourbon Street. I was a pianist in a rock and in a funk band, where I also played sax. I even wrote all the arrangements. Nowadays, you see, you have guys who have been playing jazz since they were 12 years old and, all of a sudden, around 30, they start to try and play funk. They think that because there are far fewer notes, and the harmony is much simpler, it will be a walk in the park. But it turns out to be a disaster and only gets worse, a really pathetic slide. I’m not interested in seeing that happen to musicians. I am more interested in seeing musicians play in set bands, but since most don’t, there are not piles of musicians to choose from.”

The Educational Fallacy

If Branford Marsalis has no qualms in sounding off on the jazz “star system” (to which he belongs, whether he likes it or not), he is even blunter when it comes to the question of jazz’s institutionalization through the educational system. Having had the good fortune of growing up in a musical family and acquiring hands-on experience in the clubs of his native city, the saxman has furthered his musical knowledge – in the broad sense of the term – through personal study of formal elements of theory and harmony. But when it comes to the approach adopted by teaching establishments, he makes no bones about it.

“I think that the idea that jazz can be learned by using a harmonic approach, as opposed to a melodic approach, is essentially a flawed philosophy. It’s much easier to teach people the harmonic constructs than to force them to learn music by ear, which is far more difficult. One of the problems I have with a lot of today’s jazz is the lack of melody and overemphasis on harmonic associations.”

In addition, he can’t help but notice that many students enrolled in these programs wonder how they will earn their living playing this music, and he reasons that many young players choose this route because it seems more feasible for them to make a career in it than in classical music, which may be beyond their aspirations or skills. This, in turn, leads him to observe the following:

“But that is not the question you ask if you really love the stuff. If you believe you can be good at it and work really hard, earning a living kind of takes care of itself. And let me say, there are plenty of reasons why jazz is not as good now, and it’s not because of the lack of clubs. If academic institutions did a better job of teaching jazz the way it was taught back in the 30’s and 40’s, we’d have different musicians now. When I listen, it’s pretty obvious to me who’s informed by the tradition and who is not. Where I lay the blame on universities is in holding their jazz teachers to a much lower standard than their law instructors, math and English professors. That’s a fact. Actually, you would be hard-pressed to find as many people in other areas of university life who have spent less time actually doing what they are supposedly qualified to do. Can you imagine teaching law if you never practiced it?”

Know Thy Classics

What counts for him, as a musician, is to be informed. When asked what is on his MP3 player these days, Marsalis first mentions that he is an avid listener: morning, noon and night, at home, on the road, even traveling by car with his family. Furthermore, he tends to narrow his focus on select pieces, not so much to replicate them, but to let them seep into him in a more subliminal kind of way. He avers that he listens to a lot of classical music of late, Bach’s St-Mathew’s Passion, Shostakovitch’s String Quartet #7 and, particularly, Scottish composer Sally Beamish’s Bridging the Day, a contemporary sonata for cello and piano. This jazz/classical connection is particularly fertile in his estimation:

“Classical music has played a very dominant role in jazz over the last half century and, I would even say, secretly, because musicians don’t spend much time talking about it, and the same goes for writers who aren’t that aware of it. Jazz musicians are often given credit for ‘inventing’ things that are actually borrowed.”

A case in point here is Coltrane’s celebrated Impressions, which is actually drawn from the “Pavane” of American composer Morton Gould’s American Symphonietta #2. But Coltrane’s success lay in his ability to take this melody and to turn it into something innovative. Based on this precedent, Marsalis feels that the influence of classical music on Coltrane is a subject overlooked by scholars and critics who think it’s more hip to talk about his dabblings in Eastern music. And on this subject, we give him the last word:

“The real innovators in music are also students of it. To say that ‘innovators’ arrive on the scene at 19 and make it all up out of the blue is a falsehood. That, to me, has to be discussed more in the academic world.” n

in concert

TD Canada Trust Ottawa International Jazz Festival, June 21, 8 p.m.

Festival International de Jazz de Montréal, July 6, 6 p.m.

(For further information on these jazz events, see p. 16)

Listening Hint

Braggtown – Marsalis Music

Version française...

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