Weep for joy: Branford Marsalis' march to immortality a mix of emotions

Date: 03.26.2009
Publication: San Diego Union-Tribune
Author: George Varga


Since becoming an internationally acclaimed young lion of jazz in the 1980s, Branford Marsalis has worked tirelessly to master his instrument. Today, the multiple Grammy Award-winning saxophonist wants to master the music itself.

“One of the things I noticed as I hit my 30s is that, too often, we don’t differentiate between musicians and instrumentalists,” he said.

“And I’ve noticed that, too often, superior technique and virtuosity is misconstrued as musicianship, which it isn’t. It’s just superb technique. Because I spent so much time trying to achieve it, and failing, I’ve started to understand the power of sound and how you can use sound to create emotion. That’s the greatest challenge – and asset – an instrumental musician can have.”

Marsalis performs here with his quartet Tuesday and Wednesday at downtown’s all-ages Anthology, where he’ll be making his first San Diego appearance since 1999.

On tour to promote his audacious new album, “Metamorphosen,” on his own Marsalis Music label, he traces his appreciation for musicality over empty virtuosity to growing older and wiser, even though it was a realization he came to years ago.

“It was something I’ve known for a long time, because when I’d listen to records from the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s, I’d wonder: ‘Why are these guys better than us? Why are the good ones really better than us?’ ” Marsalis, 48, explained.

“I came to the conclusion they were doing something different. The musicians in the ’50s were obsessed with playing (chord) changes, where they would take a beautiful, melancholic ballad and play it at three times its speed.

“When you do that, the melody becomes tangential and you’re not hearing a song. Understanding that and being able to do that is two different things, so accomplishing that is a more gradual process. And it’s even more gradual when you try to get an entire band to do that.”

A New Orleans native, Marsalis was still in his teens when he joined trumpet great Clark Terry’s band in New York, followed by a stint in drummer Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers.

He had been preceded in the Blakey group by his trumpet-playing younger brother, Wynton, with whom Branford teamed up in 1982 in Wynton’s quintet. In 1985, the versatile saxophonist left Wynton to join Sting’s first post-Police band.

The following year, he formed his own band with powerhouse drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts, a classmate from Boston’s Berklee College of Music. Marsalis plays on Watts’ new album, “Watts,” while the drummer plays on Marsalis’ new album and has been on all but a few of the saxophonist’s 20-plus albums since his 1983 debut, “Scene in the City.” (Watts, now on tour with his own band, will be replaced for next week’s Anthology shows by Justin Faulkner, a 19-year-old Philadelphia drummer Marsalis describes as “super-talented” and “disarmingly mature.”)

In 1992, Jay Leno invited Marsalis to become the musical director on TV’s “Tonight Show” taped in Los Angeles. The saxophonist attained perhaps the highest profile of his career during his three-year stint on late-night TV, which he left because – as he later put it – “I had a few demons to work out.”

Marsalis moved back to New York, in part to raise his son, Reese, now 23. But it was during his “Tonight Show” tenure that he had a musical epiphany, which he credits to listening to the music of Gustav Mahler and discovering German opera’s seemingly unique ability to address both the tragedy and joy of life.

“When I was doing Jay’s show, I started getting into a lot of opera and German lieder (songs),” Marsalis said.

“I came to understand that, for all of the bombast German culture represented, the poets, writers and composers seemed to have this innate ability to understand the duality of life and that joy really comes through sorrow, like you need the two to make the one.

“As opposed to our way, which is that we should always be happy and everything should always be wonderful. It was weird to embrace that in L.A., a city that embraces the exact opposite: ‘Everything is great!’ I started listening to this music and my music started to reflect that sensibility, in the way that I started to write and play songs, and the way I started to play slow ballads.”

He also discovered a similar duality – the pain in beauty and the beauty in pain – through the music of Billie Holiday, the iconic jazz and blues singer who recorded the definitive vocal versions of “Strange Fruit,” “Body and Soul,” “Gloomy Sunday” and other classics.

“When Billie sings ‘It’s Easy to Remember (But So Hard to Forget),’ about a love that’s gone, she speaks of it in that same gray color. And her version of ‘I Get Along Without You Very Well’ – for years I couldn’t listen to her do that song without bursting into tears. It was like she was saying: ‘I see something and it reminds me of you,’ and she has it in her voice, that wistfulness.

“When I started listening to her and people singing Mahler lieder, with lyrics about dead children, all of a sudden I pushed away from hearing (jazz musicians) playing songs too fast, rather than understanding the power of playing it slowly. So, it took me a while, nearly 10 years, to manifest that in my own music.”

The result of this gradual musical evolution, Marsalis has found, is that his tastes have “changed dramatically,” both as a listener and as a player.

“Much of what I hear now isn’t as good as in the past,” he said. “I wondered: ‘Is it just because I’m old?’ No, it’s because the musicians aren’t as informed and the music is not as personal. And, even if it were, I’m in a place where I’m really focused in on finding out what my musical possibilities are, in the time I have left on Earth.

“Whereas, when I was younger, I was like a sponge. I’m still sponge-like, but I’m concentrating more on music that will make me better. So, I don’t listen to music for the hell of it anymore.”

Jazz sax great Branford Marsalis has always had diverse musical tastes, as befits a musician who has collaborated with Miles Davis, the Grateful Dead, Public Enemy, Charlie Haden, Tina Turner, Angelique Kidjo, Béla Fleck, Black Eyed Peas and dozens more.

Now a resident of North Carolina, where he lives with his family, Marsalis is an unusually devoted artist. “Music couldn’t possibly mean more to me,” he said, before naming two of his favorite artists whose music is in his iPod.

The 411: One of the greatest and most acclaimed Russian composers of the 20th century, Shostakovich (1906-1975) composed 15 symphonies and 15 string quartets. He also did nearly 40 film scores and wrote operas, choral works, ballets and two piano sonatas. His career was impacted by Russia’s dictatorial leader, Joseph Stalin, who personally condemned Shostakovich’s opera “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk District.”

Marsalis: “He’s one of these great geniuses that only comes around every hundred years and we talk about how different his writing had been if Stalin had not threatened to kill him. His string quartets were a marvel that sound like a string sextet, not a quartet, and the modern sounds he was able to create back then are amazing. I really like his String Quartets, No. 1-5.”

The 411: The most imitated alto saxophonist ever, Parker(1920-1955) was also one of the key creators of bebop, the intensely complex and demanding jazz style that came into prominence in the mid-1940s. Despite a debilitating drug problem, he set an enduring standard with his bravura technique, emotional depth and improvisational ingenuity. His playing on “Ornithology,” “Yardbird Suite” and other classics is still electrifying today.

Marsalis: “The thing that separates Parker from almost all of the alto players was the power of his sound – it was unbelievable! – and you can hear it on those almost 90-year-old recordings he made. It’s something I aspire to. And he plays ballads with the requisite emotion and doesn’t overplay; the sentiment is very much in his mind and it remains an impressive feat to me. So many of our virtuosic players aren’t able to do that, now or then.”

Submitted by Josh on March 25th, 2009 — 11:00pm