Interview with Grammy-winning musician Branford Marsalis

Publication: Nashville Examiner
Author: Sterling Whitaker
Date: January 19, 2012

To listen to Branford’s interview with Sterling Whitaker, please visit the Examiner’s site here.

Branford Marsalis is one of the most celebrated musicians of his generation. In a three-decade career the saxophonist has worked with artists as diverse as Sting, Miles Davis and Harry Connick Jr., led his own bands, served as the bandleader on The Tonight Show, appeared in films and as a soloist with symphonies internationally. He is a Grammy winner and Tony nominee, and also works tirelessly as a music educator.

  Marsalis’ most recent album is Songs of Mirth and Melancholy, a duo effort with pianist Joey Calderazzo. Marsalis will perform in concert on Friday, January 20 at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center, showcasing songs from that album as well as quartet material spanning the range of his career.

Branford Marsalis spoke to about Songs of Mirth and Melancholy, his compositional process, why live music should not require click tracks, the degrading of pop music and television, his stint on The Tonight Show and much more in the following exclusive interview. What follows are excerpts from a longer interview; to listen to the entire audio interview, click on the video at left.

Thanks to Branford Marsalis, and to Laurie Davis at the Nashville Symphony for arranging this interview.
Let’s talk about Songs of Mirth and Melancholy. Where does that title come from?

There’s a Keats poem, and the title was “Of Mirth and …” something. Mirth and madness or something like that. So the more I listened to the record, the more I realized that we had a couple of songs that were quite mirthful, and a number of songs that were quite lachrymose. So I sent out an email blast to my friends saying, “I’m trying to get the name of a title together, and it’s gonna be Songs of Mirth, and I need a word that rings with melancholy. And lachrymose doesn’t work, because ‘lachrymosity’ is just too long. That doesn’t work.”

So my wife writes back, “What about ‘melancholy?’” And I said, “Well, no, I don’t want melancholy, that’s why I said I need a word that kind of rhymes with melancholy.” And she goes, “Well, melancholy seems fine to me.” I said, “Yeah, okay, great.” And the more I thought about it and all these other suggestions came in, melancholy just kept kicking me in the teeth. So I said, “Well, all right … mirth and melancholy.”

 Is it a deliberate thing on your part, when you go in to write new material, to create a mix of all those different moods, or does it happen organically in the writing process?

I’m really into whatever happens, happens. I think the job of a record is for the musicians to play their music well. That’s what our main job is, is to have a firm grasp on what the emotional intent of a song is, and to execute it.

This idea of records having themes really didn’t start until pop music showed up. That’s a pop music thing. And the funny thing is that oftentimes when I used to listen to recordings, when I look back on those recordings, the records didn’t have the theme that people said the theme was. The only thing that had that theme were the lyrics. It was really amusing when I would hear songs where the music of the song conveyed a completely different emotion than the lyrics did, but in writing criticism, critics would write whatever the lyrics said, and say that’s the tenor of the song.

Our job is to write songs that we think are effective, to respect the emotional intent of the song and to execute that. So at times it seems like it’s all over the place, but it’s not really all over the place. The ideology is to treat each song as an equal, instead of forcing every song to fit into some pre-conceived ideology. That becomes the unifying factor.

Tell me about the recording process. I assume this is basically live, is that correct?


Is that right?

Not basically live. It’s live.

That’s what’s so cool about jazz. It’s one of the last forms of music that’s not click-tracked up and overdubbed upon to such a degree.

Well, I don’t know about that. I know a lot of jazz records where they overdub like crazy. But it has the potential.

But yeah, that’s what we try to do. It was a two-day recording; 85 % of the material was recorded on the first day, and the second day we did some touch-ups, laid two songs or something, and that was that.

How do you prepare for something that’s live like that? Obviously it’s going to happen in the moment, it’s not like going to band rehearsal.

It’s just like a gig. Well, new songs we rehearse before we record them, and then once it sounds acceptable … the thing is, all of the musicians in my band have a certain level of autonomy. But the one thing where they don’t is that we have to be mindful of, and respectful of, the emotional tenor of a song. Everything is permissible as long as you are mindful of that, and if you try to use songs as an opportunity to show how good you are, I will stop the take.

A recording to me is like a gig. It’s a document. It’s not what a pop record is. It’s not a product. It’s a document. Like those old Hendrix records, those old blues records, those Chess records … you just go in and you play. Led Zeppelin, too, those BBC recordings, man, they were just in there f*ckin’ playing.

I love those old records. You don’t get that with click tracks, in my opinion.

I don’t understand, if records are being made at the same time, I don’t even understand why you’d need it. I just think the biggest problem is that records aren’t made at the same time. One guy comes in and does his track, and then the other guy is on a beach somewhere, and he comes in and does his tracks. When you’re not playing together, then click tracks are necessary, but if everybody is playing at the same time, there’s just no need for it, unless you’re a really, really sh*tty musician. Then there’s a need for it.

That’s a really sad commentary on where we are in pop music right now.

Look, the audience dictates this. Especially me as an older person, sitting around spending my time b*tching about them, that’s not gonna change anything. Because if more audiences craved real, authentic music, there’d be more of it. That’s the long and short of it. It’s the ultimate kind of capitalism.

There’s some of us who sit around and decry the lack of quality on television, when the reality is that if audiences agreed with us and demanded more quality sh*t, there’d be more quality sh*t on TV. People like that bottom-feeding stuff.

It’s the least common denominator of society. Like reality television, it’s boiling it down to the dumbest possible thing you can broadcast. And it succeeds.

Well, reality [television] has an extra special thing. With most people that live in our country, they can think of nothing more glorious than being on television. So it adds to that. You can sit there and watch it and say, “A break here or there, and that could be me.” Because when you watch a video of Luciano Pavarotti singing, there is no way you invent a scenario by which that could be you.

It’s rewarding fantasy, and that’s what popular music has become anyway. It’s not really a musical expression. It’s a fantasy. And people are all in. You sit on a plane, and the magazine I see in the hands of most women is In Touch, or Elle, or Vogue, or People. This is where we are as a society right now. You’ve got all these people wanting to argue about Obama, and big government versus small government, when the average person, sh*t … they just want to know what Katy Perry is wearing. (Laughs). They don’t care.
Even politics has become a form of reality television.

Why the hell not? If you can find a way to take a complex issue and reduce it to a couple of pithy statements, you win. If the Affordable Health Care Act becomes Obamacare, or it becomes death panels, you win. Because people can hold onto that. If you start talking about cost/benefit ratio analysis, forget it. It’s over. We don’t have that kind of education system anymore. People don’t want to hear that. Just give me three words and tell me what the sh*t is, and I’m either in or I’m not in.

Do you find, as the culture gets more and more shallow, that it affects you in terms of getting your music out there? Or does the audience that appreciates your music stand true no matter what?

If I allow myself to become bitter of the culture, I lose. But if I try to invent a scenario by which the culture embraces me, I also lose. So what I have to do is, being mindful of where the culture is, I just have to do what I do. I have to do what I do and have faith that there will be enough people around to be interested in it or attracted to it. That’s all I’ve really got.

I’m trying to remember the exact painter - they found the diary of a painter, and he writes in one entry, “Sold two paintings today. Now I can have bread with dinner.” I mean, sh*t, it ain’t that bad! 

If a guy like van Gogh can go through his entire life not being able to sell a painting, only to have his paintings worth hundreds of millions of dollars now … this is what I chose. And unlike van Gogh, I had several opportunities to be in other arenas that would have rewarded me very handsomely. But I chose this, so I have to accept everything that comes along with choosing this. And I think I do a good job of doing that.

What makes that the best choice for you, rather than a side man gig with a pop artist, or a TV gig?

I enjoyed being a side man. I loved playing with Sting, for instance. But when Sting decides to take two years off, it’s going to be hard for me to sell myself as the Sting side man. And there are things that I want to accomplish in music before I die that require some study and work, and it’s hard to do these things in your spare time.

TV shows, as we touched on earlier, it requires the ability to embrace a certain level of superficiality which I have always struggled mightily with. And I just had to come to terms with the fact that it’s not something that I could do, and it wasn’t fair to the people who do it to have me basically throwing sand on the rails. The rails need to be lubricated for the train to go down the track. They don’t need some guy guy throwing sand on it, slowing the sh*t down. It helped me understand what it is that I actually am.

Did you understand, prior to accepting the Leno gig, for instance, how cheap a medium television is at its core? Even when it’s big-budget.

This is where I had to get to a place to understand, it’s not a matter of it being cheap. Because the audience sets the tone for this. The biggest problem with calling it cheap is that it impugns Jay and impugns the people whose livelihood depends on the success of that show. When in fact if the audience had demanded higher fare, Jay could flip a switch and do that sh*t in a heartbeat, because he’s a highly intelligent person.

At some point, if you’re going to be in show business, you have two ways of doing it. You can have a keen sense of where the audience is and be that for them, or you can take the tenor of, “I’m gonna represent what the audience ought to be.” And that’s a fine line, because you can find yourself out on your ass real quick when you take that line.

There’s so many advertising dollars and market pressures and ratings, and all of these things are riding on it. And the question was whether I was going to continue to be who I was, or whether I was going to allow the circumstances to make me become a hybridized version of me. And the biggest problem was, because we weren’t using a fake name, we were using my name, I was compelled to be who I am. Because my family and my child knew me as me. And I wasn’t really interested in becoming a new person with the name Branford Marsalis.

You’ve won so many awards, and been lauded in so many different settings; do you ever find it intimidating to compete with your own past?

No, because it’s past. I’ve got to get better. I listen to all those records, and all I hear is the weaknesses. That’s how I improve. So if your perception of yourself, and the value and the worth of your music, is based on how successful in terms of people knowing who you are and buying records - if that is your criteria, then yeah, it’s hard to compete with that. But if the goal is how good am I as a musician, I am so much better a musician now than I was when I was more commercially known.

There’s an argument to be made, like something George Foreman said about jazz. He said, “Boxing is a lot like jazz; the better it is, the less people like it.” He understood that the reason people like heavyweights is because they knock people out. But if you went in there executing brilliant boxing - jabbing, weaving, hitting on points - and you win on points, nobody wants to see that. They want to see blood and mayhem. He got that.

There’s an argument to be made that was when I was a more enthusiastic musician and far less skilled, people liked the music more. And now, although it’s refined, I’m just as enthusiastic now when I play, except it’s not that 27-year-old exuberance. It’s not, “Isn’t it amazing that I’m doing this for a living? Oh my God!” Now it’s, “Yeah, I’m good at this. I belong here. And I’m getting better.”

That’s what I like about my life, is that my life is a continuing pattern of growth. Which is the opposite of even my friends professionally, where they go to school to become a specialist in a division, and then for the rest of their lives they become that. They don’t allow themselves the possibility to say, “I’m going to study this, because this might lead to something else.” It was all about getting a job, being complacent and getting settled, and I feel lucky, because I’ve never really had that.

Every time an opportunity came … you know, I was playing with [Art] Blakey and [brother] Wynton [Marsalis] calls. Go play with Wynton. Sting calls, go play with Sting. Leave Sting, come back, start my own band, go to The Tonight Show. Tonight Show leads to classical music. So now I have an absolute strong idea … I have a sense of what I want, but more importantly, I have a really strong sense of what I don’t want, because I’ve tried it. I know what I don’t want. I know what I am, and I know what I need to do to continue that. But I know it out of experience, not out of some blind fear. So I feel lucky.

Can you give us a preview of what to expect at the Schermerhorn?

We’re going to do some duo tunes, and we’re going to play some quartet tunes. There might be stuff from the new record, there might be old Louis Armstrong tunes. We just go. We just go with whatever the flow is at that time.

Submitted by Bobby on January 20th, 2012 — 04:20pm