Branford Marsalis talks "Music Redeems" and Party Songs

Publication: Artist Direct
Interviewer: Rick Florino
Date: October 5, 2010

There’s no better gift to dad than bringing the whole family together.

Jazz stalwarts, the Marsalis family, assembled at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. last year to honor dear old dad, Ellis Marsalis. Ellis is a recipient of the Duke Ellington Jazz Festival’s Lifetime Achievement Award, and he’s been integral to the genre since he first picked up an instrument. The Marsalis family sold out the Kennedy Center for the event, and all proceeds were donated to the Ellis Marsalis Center for Music. In addition, team Marsalis recorded the show and released it as Music Redeems.

Music Redeems one of the best live jazz albums in years, but it also brings listeners close to the family via personal vignettes and stories from the sons themselves. Their heart comes through on each and every track and moment in between, and you can hear it in the crowd’s enthusiasm.

Branford Marsalis sat down with editor and Dolor author Rick Florino for an exclusive interview about Music Redeems and so much more.

What was your initial vision for the show? The performance sounds pristine.

I’ve been an audio nerd since I was about eleven or twelve. When you listen to R&B records, they’re essentially recorded dry and immediate. Then, when you listen to Pink Floyd and King Crimson records, they’re more like these massive productions. I fell in love with that idea. The idea of a live recording really sounding “live” is something that I always wanted to pursue. We did one record earlier in 2005, but we weren’t in control of the audio. A television company basically did the audio, and the idea of releasing it as a CD came later. They utilized a lot of techniques that are more befitting of a popular environment. We don’t use compression for one thing.

That big full sound comes through live on Music Redeems.

The gamble is, everything that you play is pretty much going to be on the record. If you clunk, it’s going to clunk. In a situation like that when you use the room sound, you can’t really do a lot of overdubs because every note you play is in the room. When guys are making live records, they control the environment by using the stage sound and trying to re-create the room sound. If you really listen to live records, you hear the crowd rather sparingly; you don’t hear them throughout the entire record. When they cheer a lot, the sound will be dragged in. That allows you to do a lot of overdubs. Particularly in a jazz setting, I’m a real “no overdub” kind of guy. You have to go out there and hope that you don’t suck [Laughs]. You play the music well and capture it. It’s a really simple process. You put the mics up, and it is whatever it is.

The record captures the movement inherent in the jazz that you’re playing.

Jazz production sort of emulates pop production. Jazz records, now, are made in much smaller studios with isolation booths, and it’s really difficult to get movement. The thing that creates movement is the sound of the other musicians bleeding into the microphones. If you were to have a live performance, you don’t have a “singular” sound. There’s saxophone in the trumpet mic. There’s trumpet in the saxophone mic. There’s the audience screaming into the mics in the front. The drums are in every mic. There’s bleeding in all of that stuff, and that’s what creates the motion you’re talking about.

Music Redeems preserves that motion.

I’ve done so many records that I’m really clinical about it now. My engineer Rob Hunter did this one on his own. I didn’t oversee the production. I didn’t go look at the mics. I was basically like, “Rob, I’ve got to work on this music and we’ve got to work on the concept for the show. You’ve done enough records. You know how to do this crap. Go do it.” He did it. When we got to the studio to mix, it was just about the sound for me. Once I heard how it sounded, I didn’t even pay attention to music per se because the music was a done deal. It was about selecting the tunes that were the best played and making the record have some kind of cohesion.

Is jamming with your family easier than collaborating with other people?

I have that same chemistry with my band. I think the chemistry you develop from playing with people on a regular basis can never be overstated. Considering that I grew up with these clowns, it’s almost axiomatic—especially when Wynton and I play together. Usually we do a piano-less quartet song with just saxophone and trumpet and we’re improvising together, I love that. We had one scheduled, but with all of the tributes scheduled to mom and dad and Ellis’s poem, we looked up and the time was shot. Whenever you have a jazz concert that sells out the Kennedy Center, you have to be really naive to think that those people are there because they’re huge jazz fans [Laughs]. So the idea was to present a show. For all the stereotypes and crap you say about artists in general—particularly those who are playing music that’s essentially not very popular—it was really cool to put a human face on it. It was Wynton’s idea to tell these stories. Up until the night before the show, we didn’t really know what we were going to do. The night before the show, we were all in the bar of the hotel we were staying at. Wynton said, “This is what we should do!” As soon as he said it, I was like, “That’s the greatest idea!” We started telling stories. We closed the bar down laughing our asses off remembering all of these stories. The idea of the show was to put a human face on what we do. When you reference the Marsalis family, so many people think my dad was like this Mozart-like task master, making sure we practiced every day. Our pops was just like everybody else’s—fighting over cereal, fighting over food, fighting for fighting [Laughs]. Our job was to capture that and make the transitions seamless.

Listeners can get intimate with the music and the people playing it.

My favorite is the very last song, “The 2nd Line.” That really highlights it for me. My dad called me when I sent him the mixes and asked, “What did you put that ‘2nd Line’ on there for? The horns leave the stage and it’s just the rhythm section playing.” I said, “You guys aren’t listening.” Musicians listen with a certain kind of specificity. When my dad hears the song, he hears the rhythm section playing and he doesn’t feel they’re interacting like they should. The horns are gone so you can’t hear the solos. To him, it’s a wasted track. I said, “Listen to the audience! I hear a fucking party!” The audience is going crazy. I’ve played it for my friends and asked them what they think is happening. Everybody instantly comments, “You guys just left the stage and you’re playing in the audience aren’t you?” If you think about how we perceive music, putting on an LP or a CD is like a magical process. You click a button on an iPod player, and sound comes out. We sing-a-long to the sound, we listen to the sound or we wash our car to the sound. When the sound is going by, the one visual you never get is that there are physical human beings in a space creating music. It’s like magic. It’s sound coming out of a speaker; you don’t visualize guys playing it. If you hear a cough or a chair creaks in the studio, suddenly that part of your brain says, “There are people in there.” I love those kinds of songs that present everything in that way. We weren’t going to leave the stage; it was Harry’s idea to do a second line in the audience.

There’s nothing like seeing a group of guys play on stage in unison. That is real magic.

To me it is. When you have an audience reacting the way they were on that song, that’s what makes the track. It’s a party song.