The new old sound

Branford Marsalis' latest disc is a Requiem by and for a heavyweight

BM: Well, those other records pale in comparison. The other records, well, first of all, I was a kid. I was a fucking kid, so it was impossible to make a real meaningful statement. But I played the best I could at the time, and I don't regret that, 'cause now, that's one of the great arguments back and forth between musicians and writers. They would say, "Well, you're getting all this acclaim, and the shit isn't original," and I'd always say, "Well, I'm 27 years old; how can I be original?" The argument I used to make was that Bird was playing jazz when he was 15, and when he was about 27 he came and exploded on the scene, and everybody talks about the new sound, but that new sound came out of the old sound. It came out of years listening to Coleman Hawkins, to Lefty Young, to Buster Smith. It came out of that shit, and it grew into that.

Saying anything less subscribes to this bullshit "noble savage" theory that some Negroes are just intuitively brilliant and there's no work or method to the madness. I just said that when the shit is all said and done, you guys won't be asking me this question, and the thing that I'm proud of most is that for the first time in jazz history, we have a documented legacy of the progress of three musicians for a long time--not for seven or eight years, but for 20 years. You have me, Kenny, and Tain when we were some wet-behind-the-ears young punks doing records that we had no business doing. As we grew and matured into musicians, along with all the little stops we made along the way. But you get to hear the growth and hear the development vs. the days when guys only got signed when they were finished product.

So students just have a long pile of misinformation about how to become creative, and one of the things you see that's tragic is that you have people who just eschew the entire jazz tradition because they want to be new. They don't listen to Bird, and they don't listen to Lester Young. They start with Coltrane, and while they play the notes right, there's a certain lack of depth to the playing, and I've been saying that shit since I first started making records, and it's nice to know that I'm right. Herbie Hancock told me that shit, Ron Carter told me that: "This is the way we did it; this is the way it's done." But after a while, you're sitting around saying, "Damn, when is this shit going to come?" It just took a lot of emotional crap, and I think that my side projects helped immensely.

DO: How so?
BM: I think that the reason that our records don't sound like anybody else's records is simply because we listen to more than the shit that they listen to. I mean, we've all got the same jazz records. Big fucking deal. It's the other shit that's going to bring in the different perspective. I mean, Bird was quoting Stravinsky in his solos. Sonny Rollins is recording Scheherezade in the middle of his solos. Jazz musicians never lived in a vacuum. That's a new thing. It's the mentality of: Fuck Shakespeare, we've got Stephen King. The real guys have always listened to other types of music, because it is that polyglot mentality that makes the music grow. It's one thing to listen to music, and it's another thing to participate in a band like Sting's. Playing with Sting's band helped me with playing solos that were emotionally immediate, which is some shit I couldn't do even with Wynton's band. I was very pensive when I played, very thoughtful, and I'd take a lot of time to get to the point.

DO: That influence seems to show up on a record like 1996's The Loved Ones, the album of standards you recorded with your father [pianist Ellis Marsalis].

BM: That's an interesting record for me, because I was in the absolute throes of, ya know, an emotional episode, which was essentially a breakdown, but not the kind that you read about. I was at that crossroads where there weren't a lot of things that made sense to me, so we're doing that record with my dad, and I was in such a bad state that Delfeayo actually contemplated canceling the session. I said, "Naw, man, this is gonna be interesting to hear how I play when I'm in that state. Let's go for it." I always like playing ballads. I could never imagine just doing that. I find it very funny that that record got a lot of criticism. I found it humorous that two jazz musicians making a pretty record is not permissible, like jazz writers feel that jazz fans should always be in a state of discomfort in order for the music to be valid. They weren't listening to the record. They were waiting for some fantastic physical explosion or some pyrotechnic musical miracle, and that suddenly becomes the criteria for musical excellence. I'm like, "Forget about it, man." But I enjoyed that record with my daddy a lot.

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