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Branford Marsalis: Confident MF Playin’ Tunes

By Published: December 10, 2012
"First of all, he's listened to Tain," notes Marsalis, "so he has an advantage. He reminds me of how me and Tain were when we were in our 20s, which is, we were open to anything. [Faulkner] is open to anything. He brings that fucking youthful exuberance that we had when we were kids. The thing is, when you play with the same guys for a long period of time, we all grow old together. So you don't realize ... If you had interviewed me before Justin joined the band, I would say, 'Yeah, man. We play with intensity.' And we did, especially compared to what a lot of other guys are doing right now. But when Justin joined the band, by the end of the first gig, we were like, 'Jesus Christ.' Because that's what it means to have intensity. Because he's 20—he was 19 when he joined the band. He was just firing and never let up—kept going.

"He's not an established figure, so he keeps trying new ideas. Sometimes they fail, and sometimes they succeed. That's kind of what we were doing in the early years with Wynton. You just keep trying shit. After a while, you know what works, and there's always the temptation to just go with what works. But [Faulkner] comes out there, and he's trying to kill ya. He's playing for blood. It forces us to ratchet up what we did even more to match him. It's one of those things that you don't realize it's happening to you until it's happening to you," he says, chuckling at the situation. "He brings an enthusiasm. We thought we had it, but we didn't have it. He forced us to come up to it. It was good for all concerned."

The approach to recording Four MFs Playin' Tunes was relaxed, which is the typical way Marsalis likes to record. The tiniest hair out of place doesn't matter. It's more like the gates opening at Churchill Downs and letting the thoroughbreds charge out on the track. Calderazzo admits in a 2001 interview that he'd like to know more up front and have more preparation in the studio. But the laid-back approach prevails. And it works.

"I know Joey. He has a brilliant mind. Joey's the kind of dude that will take a song that he likes and practice it for three hours a day. So he gets it under his fingers, and from there he can go. But the thing I like about jazz and playing with jazz musicians is that if you have a skill set, I should be able to bring in a song—as long as it's not unreasonably complex—and you should be able to do something with it. Before the session, Joey was like, 'What are the tunes? You do this every time. What are the tunes?' I'm like, 'We'll get there. We'll get there," says Marsalis, an obvious twinkle in his eye.

He said of the selections on the recording, the band was playing "The Mighty Sword," "Endymion" and "Teo" on the road. But other songs were not played. "Jazz is kind of like anything else. I believe either you can play or you can't. If you give the average musician enough time, they're going to figure something to play on the shit. What separates them from the good ones is: You say, 'Here's the tune; let's go play it.' Some say, 'Yeah, let's go play it.' Then others say, 'Whoa. Wait. Can we rehearse first?'"

Four MFs Playin' Tunes is strong. Both Marsalis and Calderazzo feel it's among the band's best work. As for the band in total, Marsalis is more than pleased. It has a center, with enough flexibility that can add to the lexicon of the music. And it helps the band to continue to get work, which is important because that's where the money is made in today's music world: gigs. Recordings have shrunk in importance. Marsalis is proud when he talks about his group.

Calderazzo, says Marsalis, "has a fertile mind, and he hits the piano. It's a glorious return to the old days. He hits the fucking keys. He plays with intensity. ... If we had a pianist who didn't do that, we wouldn't be able to do it the way we do it. He plays with conviction. He's one of the few guys that has a fundamental grasp of ... He's incorporated a lot of traditional sounds, whereas a lot of guys feel you have to avoid that in order to sound, quote unquote, modern. You wind up sounding like a bunch of nothing, to my ears. He's able to do both. He plays all the harmony, heavy stuff. We can start playing songs like 'My Ideal,' and he sounds great playing it."

Bassist Revis has also been with Marsalis since the beginning of the quartet. "Who pulls the strings like him? Nobody. It's like being in a band with Israel Crosby [of Ahmad Jamal Trio fame]. And I think we're all committed to getting better, developing. ... Instead of having a band where everybody is good at the exact same thing, everybody brings something different. Joey has skill sets that are different that Revis' skill sets. I don't want to have a one-dimensional approach. But take everybody's skill set, everybody coming from different backgrounds, and you find the theme that unites everything, as opposed to getting everybody who can play sixteenth notes in their solos.

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