Branford Marsalis: Listening with Sonic Ears

Louisiana-born, 58-year-old saxophonist Branford Marsalis has achieved singular status in the worlds of both jazz and classical music. He cut his teeth playing hard-hitting hard bop with Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers, led The Tonight Show band, and kicked it with the Grateful Dead. He's toured and recorded with Sting, costarred in the Spike Lee film School Daze (1988), and made his classical debut with the New York Philharmonic performing Glazunov's Concerto for Alto Saxophone on Central Park's Great Lawn. He's appeared on more than 100 albums, has recorded more than 30 as a leader, and has taken home Grammy and NEA Jazz Masters awards. After all that, Marsalis sought peace in the Sun Belt, and now teaches at North Carolina Central University.

Like his younger brother Wynton Marsalis, revered director of the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, Branford is outspoken about performing, learning, and swinging jazz. He speaks especially eloquently through his mighty Branford Marsalis Quartet. Currently starring pianist Joey Calderazzo, double bassist Eric Revis, and drummer Justin Faulkner, the Quartet has recorded 15 albums of expansive, forward-thinking jazz. But their latest, The Secret Between the Shadow and the Soul (OKeh Records), is altogether different from their earlier work.

The Branford Marsalis Quartet has always performed with creative wit and terrifying swing—one need only listen to their live, two-CD version of John Coltrane's entire A Love Supreme album (OKeh, 2015, recorded in 2004) to be dazzled by their ferocity. Their latest effort raises the creative stakes to levels few jazz artists can match, adding European influences to the usual blues and swing with soul and depth, and always in service to the music.

The Branford Marsalis Quartet, from left to right: Branford Marsalis, Justin Faulkner, Eric Revis, Joey Calderazzo. (Photo: Eric Ryan Anderson)

The Secret Between the Shadow and the Soul is an hour of searing melody and envelope-demolishing improvisation. Revis wrote the rambunctious "Dance of the Evil Toys," and the regal "Nilaste"; Calderazzo's "Conversation Among the Ruins" is a mournful reflection on loss; and in Marsalis's own "Life Filtering from the Water Flowers" the group storms through nine minutes of rubato, tumbling improvisations, and elegant melodies. Covers of Andrew Hill's "Snake Hip Waltz" and Keith Jarrett's "The Windup" are the two poles of the album's dynamic character.

Ken Micallef: I'd never heard the group play this aggressively, bordering on the avant-garde. What's behind the new approach?

Branford Marsalis: Touring with [singer] Kurt Elling was good for the band, because we couldn't solo our way out of problems. We had to focus on playing music that has a certain emotional relevance. We couldn't get away with the bombast and long-ass solos. Once [we] learned how to do that, [we] realized there's no benefit to 15-minute songs. So my 15-minute songs became seven-minute songs, which means we could play more songs. It was good for the band to be put in the situation where Joey's not going to get to play 12 choruses on the song—he'll take four. Once you get used to playing in a box, you realize you never needed all that shit in the first place. It's a combination of the band getting better as a band and continuing to listen to different styles of music across genres. Because our sound vocabulary is so vast, we can do it now. We can go to places.

Micallef: So playing in a smaller zone enabled the band to address a larger zone?

Marsalis: We'd stopped playing together as a quartet in 2015. Then we came back in fall of 2017, but we were trying to play and party like it was 2015. The band had changed, and we were trying to re-create something that was gone. So I canceled the first recording session and we hit the road. We had to find the space that this music needed to be in. Then, during two weeks in 2018, we all lit up. We knew we got the sound. We recorded the album at the Alexander Theatre, at Monash University, in Clayton, Australia. [The Branford Marsalis Quartet never records in a studio.—KM]

Micallef: How does your band cover so much stylistic ground, and with such passion?

Marsalis: There's this weird disease in jazz, this idea of individuality. It started post–Charlie Parker. Before that, you have all these great players who worked within the context of a group. Charlie Parker had one of the greatest sounds on an instrument, bar none. He could play the blues. He was an incredible lead alto player. But when you talk to musicians from the '50s about Charlie Parker, all they care about was his fast break on "Night in Tunisia."

So you had this whole generation of players that were interested in playing fast and harmonically hard tunes. And it was hard to keep a band. A lot of guys preferred to just show up like shogun assassins and slay everybody in the club and move on to the next town. So you had a less global idea of playing music. Illinois Jacquet told me once, "Find two or three things that's yours and stick with it. That way, everybody knows it's you." Which makes sense in a pop-music conversation, forgetting what jazz is and what it was and what it had become—but I wanted to learn as much jazz as possible. I didn't want to find two or three things that I'm good at and then just ride that horse out. I certainly would not agree with that, for me or the guys in our group. We have expansive listening tastes, and because we do, the group grows.

Micallef: What had the band been listening to prior to recording?

Marsalis: Justin had been listening to Paul Motian with Keith Jarrett, to get that sound in his playing. Joey stole a lot of classical music from me, Shostakovich and Strauss. Revis was listening to Prokofiev string quartets. Joey started getting back into the Beatles because his son is totally into the Beatles. We all got on a Meters kick for a while. But we're not analyzing it, we're just listening to it for the sound to filter in.

Micallef: There's a stark contrast between your new record and, say, a record recorded by top-flight New York City players who aren't a true band: a group sound versus a collection of players.

Marsalis: When the focus of the music is playing great solos, you can't get to [what we're doing]. Watch a band onstage, you can tell by their body language. When they're not soloing, their body language disengages from the entire process. Think about it when you go to a gig next time. Watch what a guy does when he's not soloing, how he looks at his nails or at the floor, or how he puts his right hand over his left wrist and looks down. He doesn't groove to the beat, he doesn't react to anything. Because his MO is "When is it my turn?"


volvic's picture

I wonder if it is the same LP-12 I saw when he provided some magazine a tour of his NYC apt in the early 90's. Reading his comments on how the younger guys don't have a connection to the past, I am reminded of a statement I heard from Steward Copeland several years ago (can be found on YouTube), where he said that 90% of jazz played today has nothing of merit or anything to say. I wonder if Branford would agree with that statement. Well done Ken Micallef, wish this was 30 pages instead of just 2, great read.

Glotz's picture

And when I finsihed reading your post and looked up to see Volvic... I smiled. Positivity, insight, thoughtfulness.

The interview as well! Like this audio hobby, there needs to be more mentorship in America's greatest music.

i've seen Branford and Ellis play, but not Winton... yet. I need to. (and see his latest movie!)

volvic's picture

My wife and I are subscribers to JALC - we go see Wynton regularly during the season. Last year he did a celebration of Benny Goodman's Carnegie Hall concert. It was fantastic.

foxhall's picture

Wow, this interview didn't mess around with fluff. Really interesting about how he shortened the song times.

I saw Branford first with Sting then with Wynton (they opened with Black Codes) and then I saw him in his trio tour which I believe was documented on Bloomington. I really want to see him perform with a symphony so I hope he continues that for a while.

I love the new album but it's a touch brick-walled in digital format.