When asked what makes Shorter’s often enigmatic music attractive to him as a musician, Branford Marsalis gives a reply that will lend SNJO’s marketing effort any lift it might need.
“Despite the harmonic complexity in his music, Shorter’s music has beautiful melodies you can follow as a casual listener,” he says, before adding the line that the floating audience needs to hear: “One doesn’t have to be a jazz fanatic to appreciate his music.”branf
Marsalis, 53, the oldest of four musical brothers from New Orleans, has been following Shorter’s music since he was a teenage fan of the band Shorter co-led with keyboard innovator Joe Zawinul through the 1970s and into the mid-1980s, Weather Report.
He could even be said to have followed directly in Shorter’s footsteps, having played saxophone, as Shorter did, with the great jazz finishing school that was drummer Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. He played alto in that band, but took on the Shorter role on tenor and soprano as his trumpeter brother Wynton forged his own reputation by following the classic Miles Davis Quintet blueprint after the brothers left Blakey.
Following Shorter into the Messengers, albeit some 20 years after the older man had left to join Miles Davis, was not quite the big deal you might expect for someone who was an avowed admirer.
“I had been a Weather Report fanatic and loved Wayne’s Native Dancer album, which he recorded while he was still with Weather Report,” he says. “But when I joined Blakey’s band I was a converted R&B sax player. I was aware of Mr Shorter being a former member of the band but had not yet heard any recordings documenting his time with the Messengers. I was not conscious of his legacy of greatness, but I didn’t really understand it at that time.”
This would soon change. In the 1980s, while he was adding an enviable list of experiences to his CV - he toured with Herbie Hancock’s Miles Davis Quintet-styled VSOP ll and recorded with Davis on the 1984 album Decoy before incurring brother Wynton’s wrath (they soon made up) by joining Sting’s Dream of the Blue Turtles band - Marsalis delved deeply into Shorter’s earlier years.
Shorter’s first recordings as a band leader for the VeeJay label, which have recently been repackaged as the Beginnings 4CD set, and his extraordinary fertile 1960s output for Blue Note Records, recorded while he was a fully involved member of Miles Davis’s band, became a source of fascination and inspiration for the twentysomething Marsalis.
The two saxophonists share common traits. As well as both writing chapters in the Jazz Messengers story, Marsalis and Shorter have both contributed to pop and rock music - Marsalis playing with Sting and Shorter adding classic saxophone passages to Steely Dan and a long series of Joni Mitchell albums - and Marsalis acknowledges the now 80- year-old Shorter’s continuing powers as one of jazz’s great creative talents with clear reverence.
For the concerts this weekend he has been happy to let SNJO director Tommy Smith select the programme, bowing, as is his modus operandi, to the director’s knowledge of both the band’s capabilities and its market. “It also forces me to learn a lot of stuff,” he says, “as opposed to mastering a narrow corridor of music.”
The Scottish National Jazz Orchestra featuring Branford Marsalis play at Perth Concert Hall tonight; Royal Conservatoire Of Scotland, Glasgow, tomorrow and Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh, on Sunday.