Branford Marsalis Interview: ‘Four MFs Playin’ Tunes’

Publication: The Republic (Arizona)
Author: Ed Masley
Date: November 6, 2012

Branford Marsalis is about to bring the latest version of his jazz quartet — with Joey Calderazzo on piano, Eric Revis on bass and Justin Faulkner on drums — to the Musical Instrument Museum on the heels of releasing a brilliant new album amusingly titled “Four MFs Playin’ Tunes.”

But Marsalis has long since moved on from that album in his mind. It’s been a year since they recorded it. And he’s not living in the past.

The saxophonist graciously agreed to share his thoughts on everything from “Four MFs to what it meant to add a teenage drummer to the lineup in a thought-provoking interview that lasted nearly 30 minutes without ever making its way to the intended second question.

Question: The new album sounds amazing. I’d assume you’re pretty happy with the way it turned out?

Answer: I was, yeah. But we’re mentally on to the next thing (laughs).

Q: Already?

A: Oh yeah, man. The only thing our records do is document our progress or lack thereof. There’s growth and improvement or there’s just monotony. As Sonny Rollins told me, “Some of my colleagues have found something that works really well for them and they repeat that thing over and over again. And that’s cool, ’cause the hard thing to do is to find that one thing that works.” But for him, it’s always been about expanding and stretching and trying things, not standing still. And I agree.

Q: So when you listen to the album while mixing and mastering, do things occur to you regarding how you can expand and stretch from there?

A: I think particularly with Revis and Joey and I, a lot of stuff that we’d been working on is starting to come together. And Justin brings a very different dimension to the band. We’ve always had a reputation for being very intense. And as you get older, you get less intense, but since you’re only around yourselves, you don’t realize it. But then, you bring somebody in who’s 30 years younger than you, he starts playing and you realize, “(Expletive), I used to be intense.” It’s one of those wake-up calls where you kind of chuckle at each other and say, “OK, old guys, let’s get back on the treadmill and get our stamina back and start trying to match this young whippersnapper.”

But he got a lot of stuff from us because when he joined the band, he didn’t really know how to play jazz. He could play the instrument, but there’s so much music that he didn’t know. And he went on a very intense listening campaign. He still has a lot to learn. He’s only 21. But what he brought us was a certain kind of imagination and energy that reminded me very much of how it was when Jeff “Tain” Watts and I were playing in Wynton’s band, when every night was an adventure and we hadn’t grown comfortable yet.

Q: Was that part of the appeal of bringing in such a young guy on drums, that he would have that energy?

A: I never really thought about it because a lot of guys that are that young, they don’t play very well but think that they do. There’s a close-mindedness there, an unwillingness to learn, because in order to learn you have to admit weakness or fault. And they struggle with that. So I was not really looking for a young drummer. I was just looking for a qualified drummer. When I heard Justin, I heard him play something very simple, but he played it in a way that sounded like old guys rather than young guys. So at that point, I made an assumption that because he was 16, he could play modern music. I made an assumption that he would be willing to listen to us and learn some of the older music to make the modern music even more modern. So it was a gambit. But we got him in there and it took about two days for everybody to figure out, “This is gonna be fun.” He’s a great kid. He’s cocksure but not in a blind way. He’s not like a lot of people I hear who are inventing very convoluted lines of logic to justify not listening to music anymore, because they’re geniuses.

Q: It would seem like that’s the goal, to be sure of yourself but be willing to learn.

A: The beauty of being young is you can say things that are totally wrong with conviction. That’s what I did. That’s what kids do. The smart ones kind of wake up one day and decide this particular statement was full of crap or this one was garbage. In modern American parlance, that’s called flip-flopping. But in my world, that’s called growth. If you’re a finished product at 21, what’s the point? Check out.

In our country, we have these very simplistic views of everything. And human nature kind of leans that way. It’s not that I’m pointing the finger at America. We didn’t ex-communicate Copernicus and then let him in 460 years later and say, “Yeah, I guess we were kind of wrong about that flat-earth thing.”

I had a conversation with a guy — a very short, amusing conversation — because I was listening to Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony and he could hear strings through the headphones. So he tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Are you listening to classical music?” I said, “Yeah.” “Who are you listening to?” “Shostakovich.” He said, “I don’t know who that is.” “He’s a Russian composer. If you ever get a chance, check him out.” So he said, “What do you think of Paul McCartney’s oratorio?” I said, “I’ve heard it. It’s not very good, but it’s OK.” And he said, “Well, I think it’s unbelievable.” I said, “That’s great, man. I’m glad you enjoy it.” He said, “Don’t you think it’s amazing that one of the world’s greatest pop songwriters does a foray into classical music that has that kind of success?” I said, “Have you heard Mozart’s oratorios, Bach’s oratorios, Stravinsky’s oratorios? How can you declare it a success if you haven’t heard this other stuff?” He said, “I’m not comparing it to them.” And I said, “Sorry, dude, you said classical music.” He paused for a beat and said, “It was really nice talking to you.”

Q: And that was that?

A: I put my headphones on and enjoyed the long flight back to Europe in silence, which was fine with me. But that’s a microcosm of what I’m talking about. He has made up his mind that Paul McCartney’s oratorio is the greatest oratorio ever written, having heard no oratorios. Teaching students, I always try to think of ways to spark them to try to think about some of the stuff they say. I’ll say the most outrageous things just to provoke them to think about it.

Q: Really? You say things you don’t believe?

A: I kind of believe them. But I don’t really believe them because they’re so outrageous. I tell them one could make the argument that people who listen to pop music don’t like music at all. Can that be a true statement for every person who listens to pop music? Of course it can’t. But since they all listen to pop and don’t listen to anything else, that’s how you get their attention. They say, “How can you say such a thing?” And I say, “Tell me how I can’t.” And here’s the best part: They don’t have an argument. They just have a belief.

Q: You have experience in the pop world.

A: I didn’t play jazz as a kid, despite the myth — the Marsalis family eatin’ Charlie Parker Corn Flakes. It’s a myth. I played keyboards in a rock band. I played R&B. I didn’t start remotely thinking about playing jazz until I went to Berklee (College of Music) in 1979. I was 19.

Q: Do you still appreciate pop?

A: Not anymore. I mean, yeah, Springsteen, Sting, the stuff from my generation. When I feel the need to hear it, I’ll listen to James Brown, the Ohio Players, stuff from the ’70s. Spotify is great for that. If a Springsteen song comes on, I’ll keep it on. Or Peter Gabriel. But there’s so much music that I haven’t heard yet that I feel I need to learn. So I try not to listen to music that is going to simply be an affirmation of my lifestyle or an affirmation of my youth.

Q: Nostalgia.

A: I was never really nostalgic anyway. I never knew it until I went to my high school reunion. All my friends noticed that when I talked about a song, I didn’t equate it with an emotional event. And they all did. That’s not what music is for me. Music isn’t the thing that you put on in the background while you’re looking at dissolves of your iPhoto stills.

Q: If that’s what music isn’t to you, what is music?

A: Man, it’s everything. The sound of it. The beauty of it…. I had a friend who used to play techno in his car and it was the most irritating (expletive) in the world to me. Then, I went to a techno club and it’s great there because you would be hard pressed to find a style of music that could work a crowd into that kind of frenzy. And I understand it’s even better if you take ecstasy. But I was going as an anthropologist. I wasn’t trying to participate to that degree.

Q: So did you wind up dancing?

A: No. It was anthropological. I was beyond dancing. And what they do is not really dancing. They’re jumping and gyrating, sitting on couches or bean bags. They’re high and they’re drunk and they’re sweaty and half naked. It was cool to watch. But I don’t have the kind of mind where I would participate in it because I don’t feel the need to escape from the reality of what we’re in that much.

Q: What do you do to get the techno crowd or people at a Katy Perry concert to listen to jazz instead?

A: I don’t do anything because you can’t. You just can’t. I guess a good metaphor would be my one-date high-school girlfriend, Cynthia. I took her to a Francois Truffaut movie. In the middle of it, she said, “Take me home. I came to watch a movie, not to read.” What do you do with that? You take her home, that’s what you do.

I was 15 and I took a film class. By the end of the class, I was completely bowled over by cinema…. I took this class and we had to watch five Kurosawa films, five Truffaut films, five Bergman films. And he would explain the films. So now, I’m going to the movies and I’m talking to my friends. “Did you see that?” “Shut up, man. We don’t want to see that. We just want to have fun at the movies.” So what do you do? The film class was available. They could have taken it. They weren’t interested. And that was good for me. I understood that I had these friends who were really cool and there are conversations we can have and conversations that we can’t have. I didn’t lock myself in this box and try to find people who were like minded to sit in the box and talk about how (expletive) everybody else is.

I get that there are elements of popular culture that you have to have in your music. So when I used to listen to this music, I would say “What are the elements people relate to?” And you try your best to get some of those elements in your music. Sometimes you succeed and sometimes you just keep trying. But I don’t believe there’s a panacea for getting people to like jazz. It’s always going to be a little less than 1 percent of the population. I’m not naive about that. I just feel lucky enough that I get paid to do what I like to do.

Q: Do you find that you’re still growing and discovering new things that inspire you?

A: I like to think I am. And the recordings either verify that or disprove it. I can sit here and tell you, “I’m a genius. No one has thought of music like me. I’ve invented the 13th note. It’s really high and you can’t hear it.” My thing is simple. I think the band is really good. Is it new? Is it thought-provoking? I don’t know. I like it.