Give up LeFonque

Branford Marsalis does the 'unspeakable' once more

Branford Marsalis has often heard the complaints, and he has always ignored them. He has listened as critics, fans, even his own brother have labeled him a sell-out, a traitor; he has withstood attacks on his credibility and defied them with the courage of convictions.

Though he is perhaps the best young jazz performer of his generation--a musician whose finest works equal those of a young Sonny Rollins or John Coltrane, so adventurous and exuberant are such albums as The Beautiful Ones are Not Yet Born and Crazy People Music and Trio Jeepy--Branford has strayed. Far, and often without forgiveness.

In the mid-'80s, just as Marsalis was cementing his reputation as the inheritor to Coltrane's crown, he became part of Sting's jazz-rock ensemble that also included bassist Daryl Jones and keyboardist Kenny Kirkland; for such an indiscretion, his jazz peers nearly labeled him a leper and almost asked that he never return to their fold. Younger brother Wynton, who had previously taken Miles Davis to task for playing pop songs, scoffed openly and loudly during interviews.

But Branford--who continued to release jazz albums, each better and richer and deeper than the last--was not swayed. He appeared with pop pianist Bruce Hornsby at an NBA All-Star Game, performing a new-agey "Star Spangled Banner"; he took acting jobs in pal Spike Lee's films; he has worked with rappers Gangstarr and Public Enemy, post-modern soulman Terence Trent D'Arby, the Grateful Dead, bassist Rob Wasserman, and so on.

As a final act of insolence and mutiny, he even accepted the job as Jay Leno's sidekick on The Tonight Show, becoming Doc Severinsen to Leno's sterile, clumsy Carson. It was a job he held for nearly two years, quitting several weeks ago to begin touring again and to spend time with his son--though Howard Stern often insists, to Branford's face, he quit the show because he was tired of taking shit from his brother. But every time Branford heard the criticisms from those jazz purists who felt he was betraying their cause, he just smiled and scoffed at that "dumb shit" people said about him.

"That's been other people's problem for a long time," he says now. "It's never been a problem I've had because it's something I knew wasn't true and something I never have chosen to address. It's like playing with Sting wasn't a huge stretch for me, and jazz ain't like a huge thing. I can do all that stuff."

And now comes the ultimate dare--Branford doing the "unspeakable," as younger brother Delfeayo writes, releasing an album of his very own (no mere sideman, anymore) that can hardly be considered jazz, though it does skirt the issue. ("I've been doing the unspeakable for a long time," Branford says.) Its source material comes from all places--funk, hip-hop, ska, reggae, Elton John, bluesman Albert Collins, John Coltrane, poet Maya Angelou, James Brown, Fela, banjo master Bela Fleck, journeyman rock guitarist Nils Lofgrin. Buckshot LeFonque it's called, both the band name and the album, and it is a mishmash, pieces seemingly assembled at random from so many places; references to Madness and the Beastie Boys are heard in the first track, and from there it evolves (or degenerates) into a dozen different entities.

And yet, listen close enough and it is indeed jazz--or at least, funk and hip-hop born of the same melodic and rhythmic sensibilities; it's no small footnote that Buckshot LeFonque was the name Cannonball Adderley used when he jumped the jazz ship to record rhythm-and-blues, back during the days of "race records."

Unlike similar ventures by the likes of Guru or Us3 or any of the artists (such as MC Solaar, Digable Planets, even The Last Poets) on the Stolen Moments Red Hot + Cool AIDS awareness compilation--all hip-hop artists who lure washed-up jazzers out of retirement then have them lay down sterile sounds over a drum-machine beat--Marsalis and his co-producer, DJ Premier, bring an equal love for an understanding of jazz and hip-hop. They understand the logic that connects the two styles, finding a marriage of sound in which notes and beats are not forced on top of each other. They combine the live with the taped, the acoustic bass with the sampling machine; they bring the blues into the dancehall, the funky into the soulful.

On a track like "Breakfast @ DENNY'S," MARSALIS QUOTES THELONIOUS MONK'S "EPISTROPHY" AS PREMIER SCRATCHES ALONG, USING THE TURNTABLE TECHNIQUE TO PROVIDE A BEAT. AS OPPOSED TO SOMETHING LIKE US3'S "CANTALOOP," WHICH IS DRIVEN BY A HERBIE HANCOCK SAMPLE AND SET TO A DANCE BEAT, MARSALIS AND PREMIER WORK IN TANDEM AS MEMBERS OF A BAND--THE SAX PLAYER AND THE FUNKY DRUMMER, TO QUOTE JAMES BROWN.

"THERE ARE A COUPLE OF MY JAZZ BUDDIES WHO ARE MORE INTERESTED IN BEING CALLED GENIUSES THAN MAKING GOOD MUSIC," MARSALIS EXPLAINS. "THEY WANT TO BE CALLED INNOVATORS AND GENIUSES. ONE OF THE THINGS I KNOW FROM PLAYING WITH STING, FOR INSTANCE, IS WHEN YOU'RE PLAYING WITH STING AND YOU'RE AT THE G7 CHORD, YOU HAVE THREE OR FOUR THINGS YOU CAN PLAY THAT WORK REALLY WELL, AND THE REST OF THE SHIT IS JUST FODDER.

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