Become a member and get exclusive access to articles, live sessions and more!
Start Your Free Trial

Branford Marsalis: Committed

Branford Marsalis
Branford Marsalis
Branford Marsalis
Branford Marsalis
Branford Marsalis

They call it “burnout”-the vertiginous fever pitch that takes over when the band is pushing hard against the bounds of tonality and time. Usually it’s on an uptempo piece, and combustion most often happens midway through a surging solo.

But with the Branford Marsalis Quartet, predictions are a sucker’s game.

At this moment the band is burning out on a piece called “Mr. J.J.,” by drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts. It’s not quite noon, and people have already staked out their plots of trampled grass at Fort Adams, a crumbling Civil War naval fortification that has been home to the Newport Jazz Festival since 1981. Marsalis is center stage in a crisp short-sleeved dress shirt, tilting back and forth at the waist as his tenor saxophone cries grow wilder and less perfectly formed.

Even in the outer reaches of the crowd, attention is rapt as this opener comes crashing home. Cheers punctuate the applause; some scattered fans jump to their feet. By the time the hoopla subsides, Marsalis has unclipped his tenor to pick up a soprano, and the band has slipped into a sensuous bolero, “The Ruby and the Pearl.” It’s a foretaste of Eternal, the all-ballads project that marks the saxophonist’s third solo release on his Marsalis Music label.

The band settles deeply in the song’s suggestion of equatorial languor. Marsalis’ soprano pierces the air, drifting mournfully out over yacht-speckled Narragansett Bay. The roiling intensity left over from “J.J.” has reduced to a simmer, but there’s still no shortage of heat.

And this, as Marsalis might say, is as it should be.

Over the last quarter century, few jazz musicians have led as public a career as Branford Marsalis. He was one of a succession of precocious pupils in the academy of Art Blakey-and half of the fraternal duo that ushered in our neo-traditional age. He’s been an interloper in the pop realm, gracing stage and studio with Sting and making cameos ranging from Public Enemy to the Grateful Dead. He held a job as bandleader and sidekick on Jay Leno’s Tonight Show until the strain of the latter duty outweighed the appeal of the former. He has appeared on big and small screen alike, and ghosted parts for Spike Lee’s jazz film Mo’ Better Blues. And for the past two decades, he has fronted his band-an ever-probing ensemble most often heard in quartet or trio form.

It’s the last of these credentials-bandleader-that really matters, despite whatever indirect roles the others may continue to play in his career. Because more than almost any jazz musician alive, Marsalis has focused his energies on the development of a band ideal. This partly explains the intensity with which his quartet addresses every tune, regardless of tempo or style. It also says a lot about why audiences respond the way they do. At Newport, the song after “Ruby” is another Watts original, “Vodville,” which begins with a rumbling free section before plunging into a series of tempo-shifting stagger steps. Out among the blankets and coolers, there’s no trace of disengagement during the tune’s headier turns; the crowd stays in the zone.

“People feel the intensity,” Watts later reflects, “and there’s a certain charismatic vibe with that. If people feel like you’re really, really trying to do something, they’ll follow you.”

It’s an idea straight out of the Branford Marsalis playbook.

The other noteworthy feature of Newport’s “Vodville” is the appearance of Miguel Zenon. The alto saxophonist takes the tune’s first solo, ducking and weaving through the tricky form like a welterweight champ. Hearing him, you’d never guess that Zenon has no experience playing with Marsalis’ quartet-not even a single rehearsal. His guest spot in the set represents both a generous aberration and a promotional gesture: Zenon is one of several artists signed to Marsalis Music. Throwing him into the fray is a typical move for Marsalis, whose musical modus operandi has always been sink or swim.

“When he has your back, he really has your back,” says Eric Revis of Marsalis. “And his faith in people is tremendous.” We’re standing on the grass inside Fort Adams, moments after the band’s set. Revis, the band’s bassist for the past half-decade or so, smokes a cigarette as a muffled Dave Brubeck Quartet thrums on the other side of the fort’s shale and granite wall. Suddenly, up walks Marsalis’ manager, Ann Marie Wilkins. She’s beaming-not only about the set, but also a triumphant concert the previous night by Harry Connick Jr., another longtime client.

Before long, Wilkins has darted off and Revis has resumed talking about the band. “We’re tight,” he says, and he means personally. “There’s an inner circle, especially with respect to language. People don’t know what we’re talking about a lot of the time. And not in a pretentious sense-there’s just a plethora of inside shit.”

At that moment, a small coterie is blazing a trail toward us. Its centerpiece is Marsalis, all smiles in a T-shirt and slacks. “Uncle Rebay!” he shouts, hailing Revis. As he passes us, the saxophonist leans in and, in a conspiratorial half-whisper, murmurs: “Man, I saw that shit, Rebay, that shit was hot.”

He’s given no time to elaborate on this statement; Wilkins has him by the arm, and she’s pulling him away fast. “Talk and walk,” she says, with the brisk air of someone who has that particular exercise down to a science. The entourage is headed, I later deduce, to a quiet corner of the fort, where Marsalis will shoot a segment about the festival for CBS.

There’s a pause as Revis and I watch the party trotting away across the grass. During that moment I recall a publicist’s categorization of Marsalis as “a moving target.”

It would be true, except I hadn’t had a chance to take aim.

“This group has commitment.”

These are very nearly the first words out of Marsalis’ mouth during our late lunch two days later, in a clamorous cafe on New York’s Union Square. Commitment, it turns out, is a recent touchstone of the saxophonist’s aesthetic life; he’ll use the word at least a dozen times over our two hours.

A voluble and seemingly unguarded conversationalist, he pulls no punches and wastes little time.

“My motivation in music is not to declare myself an individual,” he says firmly, “or declare that I’ve invented something new.” He orders a Brazilian Moqueca stew, and then broadens the argument. “We’re in a very strange place. Self-aggrandizement is the order of the day in American society. It’s more important to be an individual than it is to be part of a group. So we’re like a country of individuals.” He shakes his head. “But in jazz there was always a sense of community with the old guys, a sense of belonging to something that was larger than you. That sense was basically lost in the generation before mine, and in my generation. I was lucky enough to catch the tail end of it. I wanted to be a part of that.”

Lacking community, Marsalis was compelled to settle for camaraderie. The saxophonist has kept a close-knit band since the mid-’80s, after serving successively in Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, his brother Wynton’s much-heralded quintet and Sting’s first post-Police band. From the start, Marsalis’ own bands have revolved around the axis of his uncommon rapport with Watts-a kinship dating back to their years at Boston’s Berklee College of Music. “We easily have some kind of language,” the drummer acknowledges. “It’s inclusive of components of the tradition, but the way we’ve evolved and put things together between us is pretty unconventional. We kind of grew up together-grew into adults, socially and musically, at the same time.”

In its first incarnation, Marsalis’ quartet featured pianist Kenny Kirkland and bassist Robert Hurst. This ensemble delivered its first major statement at the dawn of the ’90s with Crazy People Music (Columbia). Marsalis would tour and record over the next several years, but not often in quartet form; he worked extensively in pianoless trio settings before and after the creative hiatus imposed by the Tonight Show. By the time of the overdue quartet studio reunion of 1998, Revis had replaced Hurst on bass. Then came the untimely death of Kirkland. So Requiem was released as an unfinished masterwork, all the more bittersweet for the avenues left unexplored. It was with this in mind that Marsalis picked up the pieces after Kirkland’s passing, bringing Joey Calderazzo into the piano chair. The new group made its studio debut in 2000, with Contemporary Jazz (Columbia).

“That was a pivotal record for us,” Marsalis recalls, “because as far as group playing goes, we weren’t very good. But that was the one that got everybody on board, philosophically speaking. It was a tough transition for Joey at first. Hell, it was a tough transition for all of us at some point. But one of the things that we try to do is play songs across the spectrum, not just songs that play to our strengths. That’s part of the challenge to me. So if we’re playing a really fast tune and I don’t have the technique for it, too bad, it’s going to be on the record, with all the scuffling and the popping. One day I’ll get it right. Joey came from that camp that rehearses endlessly, so the songs are almost preordained. And we would just bring in a couple of tunes on the session, rehearse ’em and record ’em. After that session, it was really a coming together for the group.”

Backstage at Newport, Calderazzo offered another perspective. “When I first joined the band, I think they were still playing as they’d played with Kenny. It’s taken this amount of years to reach this point. Tain and I had developed a certain kind of hookup because we had played with Michael Brecker for years. But our roles in Brecker’s band are different than in Branford’s band. And it’s just taken time. The music has evolved. You keep doing it, and the chemistry’s right, and it will become something as casual as this.”

That casual chemistry-however painstakingly gained-has been the key to the band’s success. “It’s difficult for me to compare this band to the first quartet with Kenny Kirkland and Robert Hurst,” disclaims Watts, before giving it a try. “It’s groovier in a way, with Eric’s thing. And Joey’s thing is different-he’s more of a probing type of improviser than Kenny Kirkland. Kenny was more arrangement-oriented, and I really feel like Branford’s philosophy for his band is more artistic and less arrangement-oriented. So as far as the things that Branford is trying to achieve with the quartet, it’s probably a lot closer now to what he wants.”

And what Marsalis wants is clear.

As Calderazzo attests, “Branford has a vision of what he wants his group to sound like. A lot of bandleaders don’t.”

To hear the quartet today is to witness this sound in action. And “action” is hardly too strong a word, given the athleticism that has become a hallmark of the group.

“We’re a no-bitch band, man,” Marsalis boasts, grinning. “No monitors, no clip-on mikes, no bass pickups, no stools. We pride ourselves on our physicality. We take pride in it. And when we’re playing ballads, we play sensitively. We’ve got the best of both worlds.”

The other members of the group echo this thought unprovoked. Their seamless unanimity underscores one of Marsalis’ claims: “It’s not just that we have a band. It’s that we have a band where everybody is dedicated to do the same thing. We’re committed.”

Marsalis is, famously, the eldest of four musical siblings born and raised in New Orleans. His father Ellis has long been a first-call pianist and profoundly influential educator; his brother Wynton is 14 months his junior. All the members of the Marsalis brood-including Delfeayo, a trombonist, and Jason, a drummer-absorbed the atmosphere of a deeply musical household in a city known worldwide as the birthplace of jazz.

“We learned music by ear,” Marsalis recalls. “A lot of cats who could play couldn’t read. I can read. But when you’re playing in a Dixieland band and you turn to the lead trumpet player and say ‘What key is it in?’ and he holds up two fucking valves, that ain’t going to help you very much. You’d better catch it and catch it quick. I caught it quick. That means I can walk on stage and not be prepared-not basically have my solo already composed. I go onstage and as the band reacts around me I can change and shift.”

This combination of facility and reflex has always been a defining characteristic of Marsalis’ temperament. As a soloist, he gives the impression of untrammeled improvisation, free of quick fixes and formulaic prescriptions. Accordingly, his music is generally more indicative of an unfolding process than a well-polished product. It’s a risky approach that has occasionally even given Marsalis’ comrades some pause.

“There was a period when we had the trio with Robert Hurst,” remembers Watts, “and we were starting to explore a lot of standard ballads, as alternatives on the gig. Sometimes we would play the song and Branford wouldn’t even really know the true melody to the song. That’s the difference between his expression and someone as close to him as Wynton.” Watts, who has played in the bands of both brothers, expands the riff. “If Wynton was going to learn a standard ballad, he would learn the melody-maybe a few different interpretations of the melody-and he would know the lyrics, and he would be able to sit down at the piano and play the song. So during that time, I bristled in a way at how Branford was dealing with it. But now, everything is kind of a means to an end, for the art that’s created. The song is just a jumping-off point for him.”

Both Branford and Wynton were scheduled to appear at Newport, but a lip injury forced the trumpeter to cancel, and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra appeared without him. “I’m going to talk to him today,” Branford says at lunch. “He just got back.”

As it happens, Wynton had been sequestered in the South of France with strict orders not to touch the horn-a month-long restriction that his close confidants describe as a psychological ordeal. At this notion, Branford shrugs. “He’s a workaholic. I’m not. Ask people who know me: I don’t live to work. I’m practicing more now than I ever have in my life, and that’s never more than two, two-and-a-half hours a day. I go to the gym, play golf, [hang with] my kids-the good old all-American thing. I mean, Wynton’s quite prolific. You look at his volume of work and look at mine-it’s embarrassing. But it’s fine with me. I don’t envy him.”

It’s still tempting to contrast the two eldest Marsalis brothers, even though they’re now in their 40s and have established separately successful careers. Wynton was the compulsive practice hound, while Branford fed on natural talent. Where Wynton proceeds with caution, Branford rushes headlong. While Wynton has earned prestige at the helm of an arts institution, Branford has gained his celebrity in the byways of popular culture. It’s no accident that Branford wrote a song called “Cain and Abel” as a vehicle for their spark-showering interaction.

Yet there are key principles that the brothers share. Both express a conviction that the practice of jazz requires an awareness of history and a mastery of established techniques. And regardless of Branford’s less rigid approach to genre, he echoes his brother’s sentiments about jazz’s erosion at the hands of poseurs. “It needs to be done,” the saxophonist declares of the repertory function filled by Jazz at Lincoln Center. “If somebody had done that shit sooner, we wouldn’t have all these fake jazz bands running around calling themselves jazz musicians.” Then he offers a mantra: “All creative roads in jazz are through the tradition, not at the expense of the tradition.”

Something does account for the difference between Branford’s musical output and that of his brother, and it could safely be described as an interpretative flexibility. “I live in a contemporary time,” the saxophonist affirms. “I don’t live in the ’50s. See, the whole idea, man, is that I would learn shit from the ’50s, ’40s and ’30s exactly to the letter. And by learning it that way, I earned the right to not have to play it that way. But that right is earned. It’s not something where you say, ‘Well, I don’t want to get caught in a time warp.’ That’s never been a fear for me.”

His discography bears out the point. Marsalis has never shied from direct emulation of his saxophone totems. Early in his career, his tenor and soprano evoked Wayne Shorter; at other times he has channeled Ben Webster. In terms of tenor saxophone tone and the self-referential contours of his improvisations, he owes an immeasurable debt to Sonny Rollins. Yet Marsalis has, over the years, absorbed his masters and stepped out from their shadows-a point emphatically made on 2002’s Footsteps of Our Fathers, Marsalis Music’s inaugural release. These days, his tenor resounds with unmistakable brawn in the bottom register and a beseeching keen in the higher reaches. His soprano, an even more distinctive timbre, triangulates Coltrane and Shorter with Sidney Bechet, yielding a supple and broadly expressive instrumental voice. For those familiar with Marsalis, both horns are immediately recognizable, and easily distinguishable from any of their influences.

Repertoire has proven to be the more sensitive area of Marsalis’ expansive philosophy. He has never shied from repertory, or from whatever revisionist liberties might make a standard his own. This, too, distinguishes the saxophonist from his brother. When Wynton joined drummer Elvin Jones a decade ago for a commemorative version of A Love Supreme, their effort met with a largely enthusiastic response. Branford, recording a version of the suite on Footsteps, provoked consternation among even some liberal-minded observers.

The outcry could not have been a question of devotion. Marsalis, who first encountered A Love Supreme in college, has described his initial reaction as nothing short of obsession. In Ken Burns’ Jazz, he recalled: “I couldn’t put it down. I listened to it for six months straight.” But while the saxophonist acknowledges the suite as sacred music, he stops short of proclaiming it sacrosanct. The suite’s spiritual qualities were an attraction rather than a deterrent to him, even after his bandmates balked at the idea.

“A Love Supreme was the X Factor,” Marsalis testifies. “That was when we really came together as a band, when we had to tackle that bad boy. It’s a perfect piece of music. But what makes it work is your heart. It ain’t nerd music. It ain’t like listening to ‘Giant Steps,’ the anthem of nerd music. Playing that piece forced us to deal with humanity and spirituality. To play with that kind of sustained intensity for 40, 45 minutes? You’ve got to be tight or the shit will fall apart.”

Among Marsalis Music’s fall releases is a DVD/CD combo featuring A Love Supreme in concert. It will mark the first live recording by the current band, and the saxophonist sounds as proud of it as anything in his career. Audacious, ambitious and risky, it’s a classic Branford undertaking. More important, it highlights a growing truth in the life of his group. “If you play with a certain kind of humanity,” Marsalis submits, “and a certain kind of passion and a certain kind of commitment, that emotion transcends the technical realities of the shit. And that is what we as a band have worked on for the last four or five years.”

For the last two years, Marsalis has lived with his wife Nicole and their children in Durham, N.C. The new setting has agreed with him. “I’m less stressed out,” he says vaguely. His noncommittal stance seems somewhat calculated for a man who has admitted to enjoying life away from the scene.

He’s less reserved when asked about his extended family, Marsalis Music, which entered the world at roughly the same time as his move south. Distributed by Rounder but otherwise independent, the label has so far been a model of efficiency and integrity. Furthermore, it has created a productive platform for Marsalis, who used a brief stint in Columbia’s A&R department a few years ago to promote deserving associates like Watts, David Sanchez and David S. Ware. “Our primary focus is on people who have groups,” the label owner says. “And it’s about people who have knowledge of a folk tradition, so the music has a certain kind of organic, humanistic quality.”

The catalog supports his claim. In two years, Marsalis Music has released two Marsalis Quartet albums; a guest-laden tribute to artist Romare Bearden; the first-ever concert recording featuring Ellis Marsalis with his sons; an instrumental quartet date by Connick; a solo piano effort by Calderazzo; and domestic-debut outings by Zenon and guitarist/singer Doug Wamble.

“The whole thing that I love about working with Branford is that he has the ability to see potential,” attests Wamble, whose profile has increased exponentially as a result of the affiliation. Both he and Zenon will be releasing their sophomore albums on the label within the year. Zenon expresses wonderment at his producer’s trusting approach: “The first record we did, he hadn’t even heard the music before we went to the studio.”

This spirit of openness is seconded by Bob Blumenthal, who left a longtime post at The Boston Globe in part to serve as the label’s creative consultant. “I find that Branford’s got very strong opinions,” he says, “but he’s willing to look at the alternative. He’s so passionate about music that he’ll always take a point of view seriously and consider it.”

None of which should imply that the saxophonist is any less fixated on a specific sound ideal-particularly when it comes to the label’s central asset, his own band. Recorded at the Tarrytown Music Hall in upstate New York, Eternal is an exquisite and fully realized album. Marsalis plays with unprecedented warmth, whether issuing despairing tenor cries on “Gloomy Sunday” or wistfully dialoguing with Revis on the bassist’s intimate “Muldoon.” It’s an album that sounds familiar at once, yet deepens in meaning with repeated listening. And with one song apiece from the members of the band, and no glaringly obvious standard songbook selections, it occupies a singular space.

True to form, Marsalis is matter-of-fact about why the album is arriving at this point in time. “I wanted to do a ballads record a long time ago,” he asserts. “I just wasn’t good enough, so I didn’t do it. Put on records of me playing ballads before-I mean, it sounds sophomoric.”

However much stock you put in the proclamation, it dovetails nicely with another outwardly self-effacing aside: “I was a terrible saxophone player. I had a lot of technical limitations.” Marsalis adds that he has recently taken a more rigorous approach toward the classical repertoire; his fall concert itinerary included symphonic guest appearances in Sioux Falls (where he performed Hector Villa-Lobos’ “Fantasia”) and Chicago (Alexander Glazunov’s saxophone concerto). For Marsalis, who all but disavows his 2001 Sony Classical album Creation, the formal challenge has provoked a rediscovery of his instrument. “In the last three or four years,” he says, “I’ve really dedicated myself to developing my technique.”

Still, technique is not the central principal of Eternal. The album’s centerpiece is, in fact, the sense of humanity that Marsalis has described. It’s the quality he attributes to A Love Supreme; the quality that transcends whatever else may be in the air. And while he may take pains not to emphasize it, Marsalis reveals a personal side of that humanity by concluding the album with a sinuous original composition, akin in its meditative intensity to the final movement of Coltrane’s suite. Running nearly 18 minutes and lit from within, “Eternal” is Marsalis’ tribute to his wife, Nicole.

Commitment never took a nobler turn.

Branford Band Bonanza

In addition to the Eternal CD and the A Love Supreme DVD, the Branford Marsalis Quartet’s individual band members have new leader dates in the bins as well.

Jeff “Tain” Watts’ latest is Detained at the Blue Note (Half Note), a five-song live CD featuring his Marsalis battery-mate Eric Revis along with Kenny Garrett (alto sax), Marcus Strickland (tenor sax), Dave Kikoski (piano) and David Gilmour (guitar). Along with Watts originals “J.C. Is the Man,” “Mr. J.J.,” “Sigmund Groid” and “…Like the Rose,” the band rips into “107 Steps” by jazz’s favorite modern-pop artist, Bjork.

Bassist Revis debuts as frontman with his self-released Tales From the Stuttering Mime (11:11; The CD features Watts along with a core group of J.D. Allen (tenor sax), Duane Eubanks (trumpet), Orrin Evans (piano), Oz Noy (guitar) and Yosvany Terry (alto saxophone) as well as special guests Gregoire Maret (harmonica), Doug Wamble (banjo), Sherman Irby (alto sax), Khalil Kwame Bell (percussion) and Myron Walden (bass clarinet and alto sax). All 10 tunes are Revis originals, and the eclectic album touches on music inspired by the likes of Keith Jarrett (“Phi”) and Shakespeare (“The Enemy Flying”).

Pianist Joey Calderazzo has a debut of a different sort with Haiku (Marsalis Music): It’s his first solo-piano recording (and first album in four years). The CD features five original compositions-including a stride number, “Dancin’ for Singles”-and four covers: the standards “Just One of Those Things” and “My One and Only Love,” plus Kenny Kirkland’s “Dienda” and Branford Marsalis’ “A Thousand Autumns.” Originally Published

Nate Chinen

Nate Chinen

Nate Chinen is the director of editorial content for WBGO and a longtime contributor to JazzTimes, which published 125 installments of his column “The Gig” between 2004 and 2017. For 12 years, he was a critic for The New York Times; prior to that, he wrote about jazz for the Village Voice, the Philadelphia City Paper, and several other publications. He is the author of Playing Changes: Jazz for the New Century (2018) and the co-author of George Wein’s autobiography Myself Among Others: A Life in Music (2003).