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Interviews

Branford Marsalis: Confident MF Playin’ Tunes

By Published: December 10, 2012
Listen to a lot of cutting-edge jazz musicians today and it can easily be seen that this his particular notion isn't a consideration. And that's OK. But it's important to Marsalis and the music his band presents. He says that today musicians are trying too hard to complicate the music, to show how much they know on their horn or what they learned in college, and thinking less about what can reach people. He cited an interview that saxophonist Paul Desmond once conducted with Charlie Parker on Boston radio in the 1950s. "He starts talking to Bird about how [Bird] innovated and invented the music. Bird says, 'We wasn't even thinking about that shit.' He says, 'I believe music should be clean. It should be clean already—as clean as possible.' Play tunes that the people dig. That's the key phrase: play tunes that the people dig." (The actually transcription of the Parker interview is: "Ever since I've ever heard music, I've thought it should be very clean, very precise—as clean as possible, anyway, you know—and more or less to the people, you know, something they could understand, something that was beautiful, you know.")

Then, states Marsalis, "Post-Coltrane, it became: 'Fuck the people.' They had the audacity to say that was Coltrane's mantra. ... The reality is: what exactly were the forward-thinking, advanced properties of [Coltrane's recording of] 'Chim-Chim Cheree' and 'My Favorite Things'? 'Trane used that same formula: let's find songs that have a sound in the popular marketplace and do our version of them. It worked so well that 'My Favorite Things' was released as a 45 [r.p.m. single record]."

Marsalis frowns when he opines, "The entire basis for playing jazz now is a vehicle for the performer to show what a genius he is or how good he is. There's almost no acknowledgement of a responsibility to the audience. I'm not talking about us [jazz musicians] becoming a bunch of Elton Johns. It's not about turning jazz musicians into pop musicians. That's not what this discussion is about." Rather, he says, it's keeping the audience in mind and getting the music across without having people scratch their heads about its content.

He admits that when he and Wynton and their contemporaries came to prominence in the 1980s, "We were just playing what we wanted to play and shoving it down the people's throats, and we thought it was cool." But he's changed. And the music of Four MFs Playin' Tunes is exemplified in the title.

As an outside reference, he mentions Neil DeGrasse Tyson, an astrophysicist and noted author who does college-campus tours and is known for simplifying complex science, making it understandable. "The kids love him because he takes something like astrophysics and talks about it in a narrative that is so simple, a jackass can understand it," he says. "To me, that's kind of a metaphor about what our job is. Our job is to take things that are complex and oftentimes abstract and narrow them down to where people, on a rudimentary level, can get what the message is—instead of taking things that are essentially simple, a song like 'How High the Moon' or 'I'll remember April,' and putting it in 11/8 or 11/4 or changing all the chords. This is kind of where we are.

"The reason the title of the record became [Four MFs Playin' Tunes] is because this guy was asking me what my concept was. I said, 'Records can't have concepts.' ... How can you have an actual concept from record to record? Recordings, especially jazz recordings, are either a validation of a concept or a repudiation of a concept. That's all there really is. So the idea that this record is dramatically different from the last one is bullshit.

"He just kept pressing. 'Well, if you had to say it had a concept, what would the concept be?' And I said, 'Well it would be four motherfuckers playing tunes. That's what the concept would be.' He said, 'That's all?' I said, 'Man, what is our job? Our job is to play songs.' And ultimately, our job is to grasp the emotional import of a song and deliver that to an audience. All the other shit guys are talking about ... I had a friend of mine—I hadn't talked to him in a long time, and he's talking about his newest innovations in music. It's about combining 'Giant Steps' with another tune—this, that or the other. I started saying, 'When did 'Giant Steps' become the gold standard? When 'Trane didn't even play it live? Go and try and find a bootleg of any of that math stuff Coltrane was dealing with. You won't find it. He was experimenting, which is what you're supposed to do. Once he figured out the experiment, he put it on a record. Once the record was done, when he went on the road, he didn't play it.


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