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Branford Marsalis: Confident MF Playin’ Tunes

R.J. DeLuke By

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Musicians evolve, and so do bands, if they're allowed to stay together long enough to develop their musical relationships—that certain chemistry. Such is the case with Branford Marsalis, the outstanding saxophonist who has been through so much in his storied career. It's also the case with his band, which he has kept together, with few personnel changes, for more than a decade. They are a tight unit that continues to ripen.

That band, and its saxophonist, are going as strong as ever. While controversies in jazz music, real or media contrived, materialize and dissipate like weather systems, Marsalis always holds his course, producing consistently compelling music and leading a band that is both steeped in the jazz tradition and bent on continuing to hone its identity and sound.

Not like he asked for it, but being part of the renowned and remarkably talented Marsalis clan out of New Orleans has placed much of the saxophonist's career in a bigger spotlight than that of most musicians. A lot has happened over the years, and Marsalis, a man of strong opinions backed by sturdy confidence, remains steadfast, not concerned with exterior commotion. A man with a sharp and disarming sense of humor, he's bemused by much of what transpires away from the bandstand.

Consider that he was a member of the well-dressed Young Lions, who burst onto the jazz scene seemingly to let people know there were new sheriffs in town; they knew what jazz was, and they were going to swing it—literally—in your face. His association with his brother, trumpeter Wynton, linked him with a certain stringent philosophy (though Branford's ideas are different, even if Wynton's were misunderstood). They were lauded by some people for lifting up the jazz flag, kicking the dirt off it and replanting it. But simultaneously they also had dirt kicked on them by others, dismissed by some as merely dredging up old jazz aesthetics. Away from that, Branford was also the guy who went to play with Sting. He's the guy who created a funky alter ego, Buckshot LaFonque, to put out music in a funky style. He ventured to Hollywood to become the joking sidekick (and bandleader) for Jay Leno on NBC's The Tonight Show. He's part of an entire family that received the National Endowment for the Arts designation as Jazz Masters, an occurrence that yet again caused a bit of a brouhaha in the jazz community.

None of those things ever violated anyone's humanity, abridged anyone's civil liberties or started any wars. But they sparked discussion, vitriol and praise, depending on one's point of view. Marsalis, through it all, is a musician, refocused over time, trying to play music that not only matters to him but matters to the audience. Now 52, he looks at music and his career differently than he did in his 20s. It's a natural progression, like II-V-I chords.

Marsalis is also a realist. And, while he's mellowed into middle age, his opinions are pointed, and he's quick to project them. He also doesn't take himself too seriously. He can say, "Oh well" and move on when he sees things in music that he doesn't agree with. In his own music, he's loose, as long as it's in a manner that he can abide. He's true to his vision and is always trying to improve. And he plays his ass off. He expects his musicians to do the same, but not to the point where the people who are listening don't get it. To Marsalis, that's a major rub.

Four MFs Playin' TunesThe group's 2012 recording, Four MFs Playin' Tunes (Marsalis Music, 2012), is as direct musically as the street language that the abbreviated title implies. It's jazz music inspired by the grand tradition, interpreted by the cats Marsalis has put together with the goal of presenting the group sound and the growth of the individual personalities within it.

Marsalis is comfortable in his own skin. It's OK that he is one of the musicians on the high plateau, one of the Brothers Marsalis who remain in the public eye. Urbane and down to earth, he even granted an interview while playing golf in Durham, N.C.—where he's lived for a few years now, away from the hustle and bustle of music-centric cities—not from the clubhouse. While strolling the first segment of the 18 holes he would play that day, he offered candid and pointed remarks, while at the same time swinging a club and busting chops with the rest of the foursome, which included his pianist, Joey Calderazzo.

"The hardest thing to do in music is to write a melody that makes the everyman want to put in his pocket and whistle it on the way home," says Marsalis, paraphrasing a quote by musician and teacher Darius Milhaud, which he read in a book about 10 years ago. Marsalis keeps the full quote taped to his computer "to remind me of what I'm supposed to be doing out here."

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.

"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."
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