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Branford Marsalis: Confident MF Playin’ Tunes

By Published: December 10, 2012
"Joey [Calderazzo] correctly says that [Coltrane] might not have played it, but all of the things he learned from that he used in his subsequent solos, which is what he's supposed to do. But that's not what other people are doing. They're grabbing on to that song form and trying to affix that harmonic structure to a bunch of stuff," says Marsalis. He further expounds, "If you want to impress me, write out a Sonny Rollins solo or a Wayne Shorter solo or an Ornette Coleman solo- -guys who are not as linear. But they can't do that. 'Trane was kind of like food for a starving man because 'Trane had a linear concept, but all the while embracing all the other elements of jazz. If you listen to other recordings, like this excellent bootleg recording he did in '54 with the Johnny Hodges band, he could play dance blues, he could play traditional ballads. That's all cast aside [by some musicians], and everything becomes about the sequences on Atlantic ['Trane's earlier record label]. It's clear to anybody that's listening to the music that the things he played on Impulse! ['Trane's later record label] had more emotional heft. But all anyone wants to talk about is the stuff on Atlantic."

On the new recording, Marsalis is not disavowing the complexity of what the band plays. It's a fine album, with original compositions and a couple standards. It is what the band and its players bring to the material that's important.

"The shit we play is complex. Listen to the record. But at the end of the day, when you hear people talking about why jazz is not popular, they have a million reasons. Radio, they're playing pop music. They blame all this bullshit. People who listen to music listen to really simple things. The song has to have a good beat, and the song has to have a melody they can relate to. When you listen to modern jazz, they have neither. They have guys who don't know how to play swing who are playing ostinato grooves that aren't funky at all. So they lose the groove part. The melodies aren't singable," he says.

When it comes to the complexities of jazz music and improvisation, "It ain't the audience's job to grasp that," Marsalis says. "That's our job. We're supposed to learn all that shit; then you communicate it to people in a way they can understand it."

The band may have "tunes" in mind, but Marsalis' playing is of the highest order. He improvises with intensity with a spirit that comes via the jazz masters before him. He's not playing in a more reachable style, like, say, Stanley Turrentine. "But I could," he avows. He revealed a recording on which Turrentine, playing with Max Roach in the 1950s [Historical Masters Volume 2: Max Roach and Friends (Jazz View, 1991)], is "fucking tearing it up. He's playing like Johnny Griffin. Burning it." An ear-opening listen to a selection proves that to be true. Turrentine is practically unrecognizable, he wails so heavily in the bebop idiom. Turrentine "could do it. Now, he couldn't do it as good as 'Trane did it, but he could do it. He didn't just walk in and say, 'Fuck that noise. Let me start playing some R&B.' He found something he could excel at, so he could be really good at that. And that makes perfect sense."

The Marsalis quartet can go both ways: playing more accessible music and blazing like mad. In performance, the saxophonist notes, the set list can depend on what type of audience is filling the room. "I know how to go in and out. We'll play 'Endymion' in Europe. We'll play 'In the Crease,' and the energy alone, people love it—big long drum solo. But there are older people who don't like it, so we'll turn around and play 'Our Love is Here to Stay,' and then they'll be happy. So that's how we go. We go in and out. We'll play one of our songs and then a standard. Or Joey writes beautiful ballads, so we'll play his ballad, and that wins everybody over."

He explains, "I want to play jazz. I have an informed opinion on it now. I'm not 22 anymore. I have a sense of what works and what doesn't work. There's slight adjustments you can make, and you can fuck around and accidentally have a 50-year career. Or you can choose not to do that. ... Everybody's had to deal with it. I don't have to do what Miles did [with rock-, funk- and pop-influenced material]. I don't have to go that far. It's one of those things. You have to make some choices."

Even when proceeding on a chosen path, there can be things—good and bad—that shake things up. Jazz is not static, nor is life. For Marsalis and his aggregation, something happened a couple years ago that revitalized the band, revitalized Marsalis as a player. That something came in the form of a new, young drummer, Justin Faulkner, who joined Calderazzo and bassist Eric Revis with an unexpected but significant splash. Faulkner replaced the superb Jeff "Tain" Watts, who has been associated with Marsalis since the 1980s.

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