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Branford Marsalis: Confident MF Playin’ Tunes

By Published: December 10, 2012
"It's the way I always envisioned it," he says with satisfaction. "It's the way we tried to be. I feel fortunate."

That speaks volumes, coming from a man who has recorded prolifically since bursting on the jazz scene in the 1980s in high-profile gigs that included Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers and performances with Herbie Hancock where the rhythm section was classic Miles Davis, with Ron Carter on bass and Tony Williams on drums. He's also been a sideman on countless studio albums over the years and performed live with an array of artists that would be the envy of many musicians. In 2002, he founded his own record label, Marsalis Music, which has produced records by Miguel Zenon, Claudia Acuna, Harry Connick, Jr. and Jimmy Cobb, among others including his own. The sideman gigs, however, are now few and far between.

"It's not really a policy that I don't do sideman shit anymore. But you have to ask yourself sometimes why they want me on there," he says. "I'll give you an example. I got a call to do a record with a prominent guy. I said I'd be happy to do the record under the condition that you can't put my name on a sticker on the front of the cover. Two days later, they called me back and said, 'No thanks. We pass.' Think about how short- sighted the mindset was. I worked for Columbia Records. You cannot find me one smidgen of evidence that supports the idea that putting Ron Carter's name on a sticker increases sales. They do it anyway. They're driven by strategies that don't work."

As is his candid nature, Marsalis even criticized his own label when strategies were being planned for Songs of Mirth and Melancholy, the fine duet album that he and Calderazzo put out in 2011.

"People in the company started talking about a marketing plan. In jazz, that shit is ridiculous. Fucking marketing plan? For what? The marketing plan is rob a bank and then put the advertisement in Newsweek and Time magazines, consecutively. And then somebody might buy the fucker. Otherwise, we're playing for our aficionados and to our aficionados. I thought the best marketing plan we could have for the duo record, once I heard the shit, was that record itself. Because it's going to the kind of record that people will continue to like and enjoy and buy. So let's do like Kind of Blue. Let's give it a 15-year window. ... Let's just play it. We've done some [duo] gigs in the U.S. We've done some gigs in Europe. People find out about it, and more people call [asking for it], especially in Europe. The European populace has a knack for melody that goes beyond even the musicians that are playing now. The musicians that are playing now are in that overly complicated harmolodic phase. Countries like Germany and France, where they have classical traditions, they enjoy it."

Despite statements that may appear hard line, there isn't a line in the sand. That's not his point. Marsalis is frank. But there's no venom. In fact, there's far more humor than there is grave concern. He doesn't alter the fact that there are some things in the music business and on the music scene that irk him. But these days, they roll off his back. He has his family, and a cool life in North Carolina, that keeps him grounded. Live and let live.

"It used to bother me," he says of issues in the jazz world. "Joey and I often talk and complain about shit we hear. We complain about it, but talking about them is not going to make us better. If [other musicians'] goal is to get better, then they'll hear the shit we're talking about. If they don't hear it, OK. They hear it or they don't. To use a sports analogy, the guys who are often in first place are often in first place for a reason that has nothing to do with practicing hard, because they all practice hard. Where sports and music are similar is there are two things you have to have to do this shit well—or just about any job well. You have to have cognition and intuition. In order to have intuition, you have to have cognition first. The cognition is the hardest part to get.

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