The new old sound
Branford Marsalis calls exactly at the appointed time, 3 p.m., despite a schedule that should not allow for such promptness. He is on a cellular phone, sitting on the front stoop of his 13-year-old son Reese's piano school on White Plains Post Road in Eastchester, New York. Branford does not actually go into the school during Reese's lessons; that would put too much pressure on the boy, not to mention the teacher. One can only imagine how the instructor might feel with one of the world's greatest saxophone players leaning over his shoulder as he teaches the horn blower's son how to traverse the ivories--the awe, the intimidation.
The piano lessons were Branford's idea; so, too, was Reese's participation in sports. As far as Marsalis is concerned, sports and music "make people better, more receptive to shit." Reese might not have wanted to be part of either--hell, Branford shrugs, the kid never even practices piano or baseball--but his son was not going to grow up melting his brain over some video game. Yet Branford doesn't cajole the kid when he strikes out or clumsily dances all over the wrong notes. He wants his boy to succeed--or fail--on his own. Parents, says the 38-year-old father, "get too bent out of shape" when their kids screw up. It's the mistakes that make them stronger, smarter, better.
Such are the words of advice that come from a man who, five years ago, was not much of a father. From 1992 through '95, Marsalis was band leader for The Tonight Show, a gig that never earned him enough money to compensate for the fact that he was branded a sellout by fellow jazzers (among them brother Wynton, who had earlier lamented his sibling's decision to play with Sting) and kept him thousands of miles away from Reese, whose mother Branford has divorced. Branford will forever stick by his decision to act as Jay Leno's musical director and sidekick; but when he quit The Tonight Show, it was not an admission of artistic guilt. Rather, it was so he could move back to New York, where he could help his son with his homework, send him to piano lessons, make him part of the family Branford had always craved. In a few months, Reese will move in with Branford and his new wife. The family will be complete.
The move comes just months after Marsalis' longtime pianist and dear friend, Kenny Kirkland, died from heart failure, the result of a drug habit long whispered about in jazz circles but never made public. Most of the articles about Marsalis and the just-released Requiem--the last record on which Kirkland will appear, and the finest of Marsalis' brilliant career--never mention how Kirkland died, only that his sudden death resulted in a batch of first takes being turned into an official release. Of his friend and colleague's death, Marsalis notes that it "sucked the life out of" the sessions Marsalis, drummer Jeff "Tain" Watts, and new bassist Eric Reves tried to cut following Kirkland's passing. Though they tried to continue without Kirkland, the trio ultimately released Requiem untouched; it's the product of four friends finding a new sound that surprised even them.
"It was never like, 'Shit, where did this come from?' but more like, 'Shit, it's finally here,'" Marsalis says of the beautiful noise on Requiem. "It's just a matter of waiting on it. If I hadn't done all those other side projects, I would have probably gotten to it sooner, but I don't think that the ubiquitous it would have had the same amount of depth and character that it does. It still would have been good, but I don't think that it would have been like this. I can't imagine that it would have been, because we were real mischievous kids by nature, and we still kind of maintain a certain level of that mischievousness in the playing. At one time, we were known more for our quixotic identity than any kind of depth of the music, and that was the time that we were the most popular. Depth don't play in America no way, and we still have that sense of humor."
The result is a sprawling, intimate, poignant, reeling disc that moves like a speck of dust in a tornado. It's a restless record, the sound of men--after years of playing together and apart, especially during Marsalis and Kirkland's stint in Sting's first solo band--finally finding within them the guts to go so far out that they can't see dry land behind them. Not since John Coltrane's late-period work has a commercially viable, critically revered (for the most part) sax player taken the sort of risks heard on Requiem. It moves from ballads to bop to free within just a few breaths, takes chances like few jazz records--hell, like few records of any kind--released this decade. Listening to it is like accepting a dare, like hopping on a rollercoaster that runs for miles with a thousand upside-down twists and inside-out turns along the way. The nine minutes and 40 seconds of "Lykief" leads the way: beautiful intro, breathless and smiling sad, until suddenly, unexpectedly it races forward, out of control...but not. These men know what they're doing. They're discovering within them the music they knew they had inside them but had not yet heard.
Requiem, produced by Branford's trombone-wielding brother Delfeayo, is the sound of students becoming revolutionaries; it's the sound of men raised on Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, Led Zeppelin, King Crimson, and James Brown stirring it up till it sounds like the unheard music. Listening to Requiem is surely what it must have been like in the 1950s to have stumbled across Bird and Miles and Diz for the first time. It's to be reminded that the very best jazz, the very best music, exists somewhere between the head and the heart.
Branford is in so many ways the antithesis of his younger brother Wynton, a man who has dedicated his life to preserving the music's history--touring with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra and its all-Ellington repertoire, releasing albums comprising nothing but standards (including a forthcoming Monk tribute). Where Wynton is a talented revivalist driven by the most noble, but ultimately limiting, of ambitions, Branford is the visionary whose albums have consisted mostly of his own compositions. The former Art Blakey sideman, he respects yesterday but sees only the day after tomorrow. Leave the history lessons to others, to those who live at Birdland, as Branford says, referring to the famed New York City club where old men spend their forevers pretending it's 1955. The future is now. March on.
A conversation with Branford Marsalis unfolds like one of his solos; he turns interviews into essay questions. Every response begins as an answer, but goes off on its own tangent until it twists back in, finds its beginning, and provides its solution. Marsalis, currently a creative consultant for Columbia Records' jazz division, is obsessed with exploring, and he is in no rush to reach the end.
If Branford Marsalis were to spend the rest of his life on the road and in the studio--were he willing to sacrifice his newfound role as father, husband, and family cook--he would no doubt be hailed as the greatest sax player to come along since Coltrane. But he is not willing to give that up for accolades he couldn't care less about. He now tours for no more than two weeks at a time, content to spend the rest of his days playing father, writing and practicing, and rooting for the New York Mets. Fifteen years after his first record as bandleader, Scenes in the City, he has finally released his masterpiece. It is, no doubt, only the first.
Dallas Observer: How do you reconcile the idea of touring when you'd rather be home cooking and arguing about homework?
Branford Marsalis: Because if I didn't go on tour, we'd be cooking on a fucking Sterno. In a tent on a Sterno stove, or on 14th Street and 10th Avenue. So it's easy to reconcile. The euphoria of playing is incredible, but it doesn't really make up for the missed time with my kid.
DO: Is it fair to say that you've matured during the last five years?
BM: I have. There's no doubt. I can't argue that point.
DO: Does playing mean something different to you now, especially since you've come to a place where you're almost happier being the attentive father?
BM: It's even better now, because the great thing and the sad thing about being a musician is that if you have shit in your life that troubles you, you have a place to hide. Being great in your 20s, you're forced to make a decision on the side of truth and reality or the side of Birdland. You fucking live in Birdland ad infinitum. You can just live there and say, "I don't have time to deal with these children; I am a creative musician and have to follow my muse." I wouldn't be the first musician to do it: "Don't talk to me about my family, talk to me about Miles Davis."
DO: Your decision to reconcile family with your career is a fascinating one, especially when you consider jazzers in Dallas, such as the late James Clay and Marchel Ivery, who sacrificed recognition for family.
BM: I was at Juilliard today talking to the students, a bunch of seniors, and they were talking about the whole issue of "to sell out or to not sell out." I'm like, "Man, how many of you guys practice more than an hour a day?" and, of course, all the hands went up. I go, "Well, all those years that you were practicing, what was it that you thought of while you were practicing? Why were you practicing? What was your goal?" And it's amazing, I couldn't get a fucking answer. I was like, "Was it fame? Did you think, 'I'll do this, and one day I'll be a great successful solo performer?'" And then a bunch of hands went up.
I said, "How many people were just practicing, saying, 'You know, man, I hate practicing, but I love music so much that the shit is worth it?'" and, like, one or two tentative hands went up. But that's the shit. Call me naive, but music is its own reward.
DO: Requiem was not released the way that you intended it to be, but it still seems more fully formed than your earlier records, especially such discs as Scenes in the City and Royal Garden Blues.
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.
DO: As a man reconnecting with his son after so long, it must have been kind of special to finally make a record with your own father.
BM: Well, it was his record. I just stayed the hell out of the way. And when you're doing a record with your dad, he's the piano player, and I'm the saxophone player. It's not like a father and a son. It's like, he played one take, and I turned around and said, "Man, what the hell are you doing?!" And he doesn't go, "I'm your father." He said, "Man, I was tryin' to blah blah blah blah." I said, "Man, that sucked! Don't do that." And he said, "Naw, I don't think you're right, man." And I told him, "Trust me!" And he did the same thing to me. He would say, "You wanna play it like you mean it this time?"
There's never a point where it's a father and son anything. It's two cats playing. But it would be nice to have a father-son relationship with him. It would be nice. But my dad's, like, he's working on it. But he's more comfortable in Birdland. He likes Birdland better.
The Branford Marsalis Quartet performs April 28 at Sambuca-Addison.
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