The three-time Grammy winner, whose latest release was 2012’s Four MF’s Playin’ Tunes with his quartet, is devoted to the music and sneers at the music industry’s “pop record trajectory” that sees touring as a marketing vehicle to sell records. “Everybody has kind of adopted that philosophy,” he explains.
“Many jazz musicians jumped on a bandstand that wasn’t designed for us. Jazz-club owners and concert promoters don’t want to put you in a place unless you have a record out. I’m not really compelled to go into the studio and spend money to make a record that nobody’s going to buy unless the band makes a big turn in a different direction. Having a new record has almost no impact at all on anything because the records don’t really sell a lot. So there’s no real financial impetus to make a record unless there’s some kind of musical advancement that I hear in the group. And then, yeah, we need to record.”
Not to say that Branford and his solid quartet with longtime pianist Joey Calderazzo, bassist Eric Revis and the newest addition, drummer Justin Faulkner, have just been cruisin’ down familiar highways. Quite the contrary.
“The reality is that the way we play, every time we play a song, it’s a new song,” Marsalis says. “We do not play the same shit every night.”
While the quartet continues to perform music from Four MF’s as well as adding new tunes, Marsalis contends that none of the songs from that album now sound as they do on the disc. “We don’t play anything like that anymore. [The songs] go in different directions.”
So, for a remarkable musician like Marsalis, if record sales don’t bring in the bucks, how can a jazz artist earn a living? “We do what musicians have done since jazz started—we tour, we play,” the saxophonist states. “You tour—that’s what it is.”
In his blowing, composing and working with his group, Marsalis incorporates essential elements that he feels resonate with curious audiences that aren’t necessarily jazz aficionados—melody, rhythm and intensity.
“You have to give them things that remind them of those that they’re already familiar with,” Marsalis offers. “Different people like different things. Some people like ballads, some like intense music, free shit, some like melancholy ballads. Others like dance music or groove. I think, as a professional musician, you should be able to do all of that with a certain level of authenticity. Blakey [drummer Art Blakey] and those guys understood that we were in show business, too. Dexter [saxophonist Dexter Gordon], Dizzy [trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie] and Blakey, they had charismatic presences. You don’t see that very often. So now, regular people aren’t as inclined to go to jazz concerts as much. Guys these days are kind of shy and reserved.”
Four MF’s Playin’ Tunes was initially released on vinyl on the Marsalis Music label that he founded in 2002. “I always thought that, of the people who listen to jazz, a significant number of them were audiophiles,” he says. “The company finally said, ‘We’ll do it your way,’ and it sold 1,000 copies in two weeks. I knew that would work. We’d been getting a lot of good reviews in audio magazines for a number of years. Not so much about how the band plays, though they talk about that, but mostly they like the way the records sound. They sound like people in a room playing.”
The last time Marsalis played Jazz Fest was in 2007, at which time his longtime drummer, Jeff “Tain” Watts, was in the quartet with him and regulars Revis and Calderazzo. Faulkner, a twenty-something dynamo, took over the drum position in 2009 and Four MF’s marks his recording debut with the quartet. This year’s Jazz Fest date stands as the first time local audiences will have the opportunity to see Faulkner work.
“He sounds great,” Marsalis says. “[Faulkner’s involvement] evolved in the way I thought it would. The thing that I love about him is that he is continually trying to improve. It’s easy to just say, ‘I’ve arrived; I’m here; I’m just going to do my thing.’ Everybody in the band, we’re all pushing, trying to play better and change up stuff. He made changes; I’ve made changes, Joey…We’ve all made changes.”
Though Marsalis has been in and out of town through his and Harry Connick Jr.’s involvement with Habitat for Humanity and the Ellis Marsalis Center for Music, it’s unfortunate for him and us that he isn’t booked in his hometown more frequently.
“I love playing in New Orleans and I wish there was a way we could play there more often,” Marsalis laments. “Jazz Fest is kind of the only vehicle that allows that to happen. I guess the venues feel that we wouldn’t garner enough in ticket sales to warrant us being there.”
The Branford Marsalis Quartet performed in Baton Rouge on April 2 at the Shaw Center for the Arts: Manship Theatre. “I wish the dates between these gigs would have been closer,” Marsalis says, “but the good thing about it is that I get to come back to New Orleans twice.”
Marsalis made what some might consider a few unexpected detours in his career, starting in the mid-80s when he joined—along with jazz-piano giant Kenny Kirkland—pop star Sting’s band. In 1990, he jumped on the Grateful Dead bandwagon, making several appearances with the noted group until 1994. In a surprise to most, in 1992 the saxophonist became the bandleader on TV’s “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.” It was a fairly short-lived gig of just three years. He also made it to the big screen in 1988, when he co-starred in Spike Lee’s “School Daze.” Naturally, throughout this period Marsalis was still producing great jazz, including albums such as 1985’s Royal Garden Blues and 1990’s Crazy People Music.
“That’s all gone—I’m a musician,” says Marsalis of his outside ventures. “The whole pop thing is pretty much done. Sting and I will find a way to do things together, but nothing high profile. There’s a second generation of kids who have grown up with music that doesn’t have instruments—just samples and computer-generated stuff. That’s just where it is right now.”
Instead, the saxophonist and National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master has been concentrating on continually digging into jazz, his position as adjunct professor at the North Carolina Central University (along with Calderazzo), composing for Broadway plays and working in classical settings (he is an opera buff) including with the New York Philharmonic. Since last October, he’s been deeply delving into Baroque music and plans to travel to London soon to study Baroque “ornamental music.” He explains that this music was originally written to give space to “ornament,” or add color to the existing compositions.
On the educational front, Marsalis prefers his position of adjunct professor, as it gives him the flexibility to continue to tour and play. Playing jazz is, after all, central to his life. One of the elements he focuses on as an educator, he says, is to have students listen to music that they wouldn’t ordinarily put their ears to. “It’s whatever they need,” he explains. “It depends on the person. For instance, piano players need to learn how to use their left hand, so I make them listen to stride.”
On the joyful Four MF’s Playin’ Tunes, the band members along with their leader have a hand in the compositions. “That doesn’t really matter to me,” Marsalis protests. “I’m going to pick the best songs that we have at that time. Some musicians get bent out of shape if you don’t mention that they wrote a song—I’m not talking about my guys! It’s inconsequential. At the end of the gig, nobody cares who wrote the song. At times we tend to focus on the small picture. ‘Hey man, how did you like my solo on the third song?’ What makes you think I’d remember it?”
“Sting’s wife, Trudie Styler, said that most people who come to concerts come to see it and not hear it. Visual presentation is important. I used to walk off the bandstand because I saw Miles doing it.” Realizing his onstage presence was important to the audience, Marsalis now simply heads to the back of the stage during pauses in his blowing. “If I stand at the front, they’ll just stare at me,” he says. “What am I going to do start fucking dancing?”
Recently, Marsalis got a call from his brother Wynton to sub for saxophonist Walter Blanding with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra. It was the first time he was asked to play with the renowned ensemble and he enjoyed the challenge.
“It was hard at first—reading all that music all of a sudden,” Marsalis admits. “My music looked like a science notebook—notes written all over the place. It was fun and I enjoyed being put in a situation where I had to bust my ass to make it work.”
Though certain family circumstances haven’t yet allowed it, Marsalis, who presently lives in Durham, North Carolina, says he’s always considered moving back to New Orleans. “That’s never been an issue for me. I miss the hell out of it. No argument there. New Orleans is always going to be my place; it’s always going to be my people.”