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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."

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