Branford Marsalis’ Secret

The acclaimed tenor saxophonist discusses the key to maintaining his long-running quartet, his hometown, his father, and why he doesn’t consider Kamasi Washington a jazz player

Branford Marsalis (photo by: Eric Ryan Anderson)

“I’m ready when you are.”

Branford Marsalis does not waste time. In the handful of minutes since we shook hands in the lobby of his New York hotel, the saxophonist has marched into the adjacent restaurant, picked a window table, and ordered coffee and a pastry. He’s still looking at his cellphone, scrolling for last-minute messages, when he fires the starting gun for this interview.

What follows is like a flash flood, a 90-minute torrent of strident judgments, firm challenges, and illustrative anecdotes, delivered with informed passion in often colorful language. Questions are asked; some don’t make it to a full sentence before Marsalis fires back. “It was never really popular,” he declares, cutting short a suggestion that jazz was a mainstream entertainment in its first decades. “Swing was popular.”

Later, Marsalis corrects an assumption about his own emotional commitment to jazz. “I play it, I don’t live it,” he explains. “The music is a reflection of my life. But the guys who say, ‘You can’t play the blues unless you’ve lived them’—what the fuck does that even mean? I gotta have my teeth punched out before I can play the blues? Of course not.”

If pianist Ellis Marsalis is the local pillar/patriarch of New Orleans’ most famous jazz clan, and the second of his four musician sons, trumpeter Wynton, is the polymath and public educator, the eldest, Branford, now 58, is the enforcer—a street-savvy dynamo with fiercely held ideals forged from wide-ranging experience and exploration.

Marsalis, who lives in Durham, N.C., is in New York on this snowy winter day for a club date with his acclaimed Branford Marsalis Quartet. Founded in 1986, the quartet—currently featuring two players (pianist Joey Calderazzo and bassist Eric Revis) who’ve played with Marsalis for more than 20 years and one (drummer Justin Faulkner) who joined a decade ago—is launching The Secret Between the Shadow and the Soul, its first album since 2016’s Upward Spiral, a collaboration with vocalist Kurt Elling. Recorded over three days in May 2017, while the band was in Australia, the new record showcases the quartet’s twofold might as composers (Revis’ convulsive opener “Dance of the Evil Toys”; Calderazzo’s delicate conviction in “Cianna”) and a jubilant performing collective, particularly in the closing version of Keith Jarrett’s “The Windup.”

At one point, Marsalis reveals that he wanted to cover that song’s parent album—1974’s Belonging by Jarrett’s Scandinavian quartet—“but play it with our sensibility. Then we did the thing with Kurt. It blew that out of the water.” The saxophonist also pays tribute to trumpeter Roy Hargrove, who died in November (“The people with that kind of talent usually play pop because that’s where the money is”), and compares his ’90s trials as a bandleader on The Tonight Show with Jon Batiste’s success on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert: “You have to have a certain mentality to do it. Jon gets what it is.”

Marsalis prefers his ongoing path with the quartet. “We make records, we tour a lot—this is what it is,” he says. There is a pause, then a grin. “Don’t choose some shit that’s unpopular, then be pissed off that it’s not popular.”

L to R: Branford Marsalis, Justin Faulkner, Eric Revis, Joey Calderazzo
L to R: Branford Marsalis, Justin Faulkner, Eric Revis, Joey Calderazzo (photo by: Eric Ryan Anderson)

JT: You’ve made two albums with the quartet over the last decade. How do you define a working group at this point?

BRANFORD MARSALIS: I don’t think of it as a working group. It’s a band. Jazz has been so fucked for so long that having a band is a novelty, which spawns hilarious questions: “You’ve had the same band for 20 years. Don’t you ever want to change it up?” And I say, “You mean like the Rolling Stones? They can stay together but we can’t?” We did the thing with Kurt, but the band was intact.

And I change it up more than anybody—in classical music, popular music, jazz. But my history in music has been formed around bands, whether it’s the Who, Led Zeppelin, and Earth, Wind & Fire or Ornette Coleman’s and Miles Davis’ bands. I have always gravitated toward bands.

Do you decide when to tour or record? Clarence Clemons, Bruce Springsteen’s saxophonist, once told me that he knew it was time for the road when he got a phone call: “Big Man, it’s Boss time.”

It’s a different context. We don’t take two years off. We do it perpetually. We will not sell enough records or make enough money on tours to not tour. So we go all over the place, all corners of the world. And when nobody’s buying records, which will be soon, we keep touring. With non-popular music, that’s the reality. We’re all entertainers. When jazz musicians understand that, they might change their outlook on things.

Jazz was certainly dance music in the beginning, in New Orleans.

I can’t dance worth shit. But I can tap my foot, shake my booty in my seat. Charlie Parker understood that. Coleman Hawkins understood that. The next generation, right after Parker, ceased to be enamored with whether a song was good or bad. They fell in love with structure. Parker’s music bounced. The next guys fell in love with complication. Everybody wanted to play the break in “Night in Tunisia” as fast as possible.

The trick is to write hard shit but make it sound simple. When regular people listen to Stravinsky, they don’t think Petrushkais hard—they don’t have to play it. In jazz, we’ve gone the other way: “Y’all gotta be smart to deal with what we’re doing.” That’s not a winning formula. You have to accept that people hear music with their eyes first. That’s why the operative verb is “see” when you go to a concert, not “hear.”

How would you define the entertainment at your quartet’s concerts?

All of the guys are incredibly charismatic. When people come backstage, they don’t say, “Oh, man, what was the structure on that tune?” They say, “It’s great to watch guys who enjoy each other, who look at each other when they’re playing.” And we always play a song from the ’30s or like that, which has a melody everybody knows.

We played a gig at a jazz festival in Washington, D.C. last week. There were a lot of older people. We played our stuff, and they’re just staring at us. Then we played “On the Sunny Side of the Street.” A man comes up later: “You played the hell out of that song. Why don’t you play more of that and less of the crazy shit?” [Laughs] But we gave him one song he could identify with. So he likes what we do, instead of being confused by it.

How did you decide what to record for the new album? The band is named after you but most of the original pieces are by Joey and Eric.

I’m more the way Miles operated. He never told you what to do. He told you what not to do. That leaves a lot of leeway. We talk about the songs—and we argue. On my piece, “Life Filtering from the Water Flowers,” I didn’t want Joey to play solo piano: “Just do it the way I set it.” But we played it and the more I heard it, the more I thought, “He might be right.”

I am the leader, but I’m not the one with all the good ideas. It’s a dialogue among all the guys. Each song has a unique color. We didn’t have a song like [Andrew Hill’s] “Snake Hip Waltz.” Revis brought it in, and I’m like, “We can use a happy song.” Joey’s “Cianna” is more like a cute love song.

I was struck by his “Conversation Among the Ruins.”

Joey writes melancholy music with beautiful, long melodies. He was going through some personal turmoil when he wrote that song, and it captures that. I don’t read a lot of poetry, but when I’m starting records, I read stuff to find apt titles. And I thought that was a good one [from the 1956 sonnet by Sylvia Plath].

How did Eric’s “Dance of the Evil Toys” first hit you?

Nuts. Eric’s own group is an avant-garde band. We’re way inside compared to that. So he’s in both worlds. But in the second break, the last note in Eric’s ostinato bass line is also the first note of the melody. So rather than have him play that note, then have me play it, I decided I would play the note as he ends, so the ending and beginning start in the same place.

Did you lead your first quartet [with pianist Kenny Kirkland, bassist Robert Hurst and drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts] the same way?

Yeah. We were funny as shit on stage. And we were serious. Tain calls me one day and says, “Hey, man, you gotta get down to Bradley’s [the fabled Greenwich Village club, which closed in 1996].” It was a band with Walter Davis Jr. on piano, Ben Riley on drums, and I think [Ahmed] Abdul-Malik on bass—as close as we were ever gonna get to how bebop really sounded.

It was amazing to see how they looked at each other as they played, how much they talked to each other. Walter would play something, and Ben would say, “Oh, so it’s gonna be like that!” I was like, “We need to start doing this, let our personalities come out.” It wasn’t like we were shy, reticent actors who had to learn how to be axe murderers. We were already like that: “Let’s go kill people.”

Was that something instilled in you as you grew up in New Orleans?

It is a very charismatic city. There’s a lot of competition. But it isn’t insecurity. We take on all comers. It’s not “We gotta keep them away, they might take our gig.” When I got to New York, I saw the jam sessions—guys inviting people on stage and calling songs in keys they know people don’t know. It’s like the ultimate inside joke. Somebody did it to me—I walked off the stage. He said, “Go home and practice.” I said, “Why would I spend weeks of my life learning to play a song in a stupid key so I can trick somebody up on a bandstand?” Life’s too short.

Branford Marsalis (photo by: Eric Ryan Anderson)

How do you now see your father’s impact on jazz—as a player and teacher, creating a family aesthetic? He never sought the limelight beyond New Orleans.

He regrets not moving to New York. But if he had moved to New York, none of us would exist. People say jazz isn’t popular but should be. My dad’s philosophy is, “Jazz isn’t popular. Let’s play jazz.” When Wynton and I were playing in R&B bands, doing cover tunes, we were making way more money than he was. Wynton was like, “Doesn’t that bother you?” “No, I chose this.” That was the end of it.

I moved to New York with that attitude. I went off and played with Sting [in the ’80s], a great guy and fantastic songwriter. But there was this assumption: I’ll be going back to this other music I was doing. Sting understood that.

What did you learn from your time with Sting about supporting a singer?

I learned that in New Orleans. There’s a scene in that Charlie Parker movie [Clint Eastwood’s 1988 film Bird] where he’s playing all this shit and the woman singer turns around and curses him out. I went through that scene [smiles]. My dad burst out laughing when I told him: “The singer is the most important person on the stage. And if you don’t understand that, don’t play with singers.”

What did you carry over from your experience with Sting to your collaboration with Kurt Elling?

There is no concrete way to say, “These are the five things I learned with Sting.” When I was playing with Sting, I wasn’t reflecting on what we played. It was happening, and we were trying to get better at what was happening.

The funny thing with Kurt is that he has this absolutely gorgeous voice, but he’d rather be a saxophone player. On tour, we would come out and play a song, and the audience would just stare at us. We’d announce Kurt, and they’d get this shit-eating grin on their faces. He would sing, move to the side, and people would keep looking at him, so happy to see a singer. And he’s like, “These guys are soloing, and I’m just standing here.”

But it wasn’t singer-with-backing band. It was more like the Branford Marsalis Quintet. He was completely integrated with the band, and we had a good time out there.

Your two albums in the ’90s with the band Buckshot LeFonque—mixing jazz, pop, and DJ culture—got a mixed reception. What’s your take on artists like Robert Glasper and Kamasi Washington, who are now working at the crossroads of jazz and hip-hop?

Robert Glasper has a limited jazz vocabulary, and that’s not anything he would say is not true. I think it’s in his best interest to do that. Kamasi’s not a jazz player either. He’s a sax player. But his vocabulary is not jazz. It’s some jazz.

This is not something I want to go to war with. But I can listen to a Lester Young record, a Dexter Gordon or Wayne Shorter record, and ask, “Do you hear that lineage in his playing?” If you don’t, what makes it jazz? Improv? We’re back to that illusion again. The success that Kamasi has had—it’s awesome. But the people defending him as a jazz player are not jazz players. They have their own idea of what jazz is, and they are entitled to that. But so am I.

One interesting thing about Kamasi’s rise is the way he has connected on the jam-band and rock-festival circuit. But you first did that in 1990 when you played with the Grateful Dead at Nassau Coliseum in New York.

That was different. I was playing in their band. Buckshot played with [the jam band] String Cheese Incident for a while. We could have been in that. But at no time would I have accepted the notion that this was jazz. We had influences from jazz, from rock. It was a hybrid thing.

But you fit into the Dead’s aesthetic so well they invited you to join them at later gigs.

The first time, some of the guys were like, “Oh, no, another jazz guy.” Because they had David Murray and Ornette come in, and they just did their David Murray and Ornette thing on the tunes. But I never bought into the genius thing. The modern definition of genius is not about adaptability—it’s about a singular idea that you thrust and bogart on every situation. If I’m going to play with the Grateful Dead, I’m going to play with them, not on top of them.

You reunited with some of the surviving members—the offshoot Dead and Company—at the Lockn’ Festival last year. What was it like going back to that music—and with another guitarist, John Mayer, in Jerry Garcia’s spot?

It’s a different band now. John doesn’t have the same sonic vocabulary that Jerry had. Jerry came from bluegrass and folk, a little jazz. John’s thing is more Delta blues, and he goes to that lane. It doesn’t have the same feeling as when Jerry was there. But there’s this other thing, and it’s cool.

What’s next for you, with or outside the quartet? Are there other concepts you want to pursue?

We’re gonna play. We just hit, and an idea will develop or it won’t. And we’ll keep playing until it does. I’m not part of the concept crowd, this idea that musicians have to come up with a new concept on every record. When Einstein came up with the theory of relativity, he didn’t come back two years later and say, “I need some new shit.” It took him forever to get to that one. And it was a discovery, not an invention, because the data was pre-existing. He stared at the same forest as the other physicists, but the trees made sense only to him.

That’s a great metaphor for music. You hear all these sounds, and then you hear the things that other guys don’t hear. So many players are about knowing things, not hearing them. My marker is listening to great musicians and saying, “Am I in that camp? Am I learning everything they left out here?” That’s the only thing that matters when you decide to do this. 

David Fricke

David Fricke has written about music for more than four decades for publications including Rolling Stone, MOJO, the late great British weekly Melody Maker and now JazzTimes. He is a DJ at Sirius XM Radio, a Grammy-nominated writer of album liner notes and a three-time winner of the ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award for excellence in music journalism.