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Educating Branford

Stewart OksenhornAspen Times Staff Writer

From the outside, it can seem like Branford Marsalis has been on a quest to locate his musical self.Marsalis has hopscotched from acoustic jazz to pop to classical symphonic music. He has led the Tonight Show with Jay Leno band on late-night television, the innovative jazz-meets-hip-hop outfit Buckshot Lefonque, and his current acoustic quartet. His recordings have been groundbreaking, such as the two he made in the 90s with Buckshot Lefonque; other CDs, like the 2002 quartet album Footsteps of Our Fathers, which interpreted compositions by John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins and other jazz giants, have honored the past. Marsalis notable appearances as a pop music sideman have included a long stint in Stings polished band, and a handful of loose sit-in jams with the Grateful Dead.From Marsalis perspective, the gigs are all united by a single vision. From the time he was 19, when he began to discover the possibilities offered by jazz, the saxophonist has been on a mission to grow as a musician. Dabbling in various genres, jumping from roles as sideman to leader, and risking alienating one audience or another, has always been in the service of an ongoing music education.Marsalis leads his current acoustic quartet with pianist Joey Calderazzo, bassist Eric Revis and drummer Jeff Tain Watts to a concert at the Wheeler Opera House on Saturday, Nov. 29. Marsalis finds in the quartet the same potential for exploration as he has with Sting or the 20th-century French composers Ravel and Debussy, whose works he recorded for the 2001 CD, Creation.Im still in the same mind-set as always to be in a position to learn as much as possible, said the 43-year-old Marsalis by phone. To most people, that could mean doing only one thing at one time.All those things define you. Everything Ive done has put me in the position Im in now, which is a good position. So I dont regret any of them. Im glad to have done everything Ive done.Still, in the past, Marsalis had become accustomed to explaining himself why he would jam with the Dead, or jump into hip-hop, or take a gig on TV that, by his own admission, he could have handled as a high-schooler. But more recently, Marsalis has distanced himself from such questions and criticism, and focused on his inner artistic yearnings.I used to feel the need to defend my position. But now it doesnt affect the way I choose to play music, said Marsalis. Perception is reality for a lot of people. But what it sounds like is considerably more important than what it looks like.Life is best learned through living it and not listening to what other people tell you.The first family of jazz?If Marsalis had stayed in his hometown of New Orleans where he was the oldest son in the noted musical family that includes his father, pianist and educator Ellis Marsalis, and brothers Wynton, Delfeayo and Jason he might never have learned that musical diversity was an odd thing. Marsalis saw his father take most any gig that would pay the bills, or at least offer a good jam, and not worry that the music would be out of his range.A musician in New Orleans could not afford to be specialized, said Marsalis. You could play with Al Hirt one night, Elvis Presley the next, and nobody would qualify you as a jazz musician or a pop musician. Guys just did gigs.When you grow up in an environment where not everything needs to be codified, you can do a lot of things.Only when he moved out of New Orleans first to Boston in the late 70s, to attend the Berklee School of Music, and then to New York, to embark on his professional career did Marsalis see how audiences and music business people tend to categorize musicians. It was not until I got to the East Coast that I realized that you had to find a niche, said Marsalis, who last year moved from New York to North Carolina, which he says fulfills other needs aside from the professional.Marsalis even finds the common perception of his clan as righteous upholders of the jazz tradition to be off-kilter. As a youngster, Marsalis wanted little to do with jazz. Instead, he played piano in a rock band and saxophone in an r&b group, and implored his father to convince his trumpet-playing brother Wynton to join his bands. The impression is that we were the first family of jazz, that we sat around eating out of the box of John Coltrane, he said. The reality is very different. All of my family was most surprised when I played jazz at all.It was when he went to see Wynton the most disciplined of the sons, according to father Ellis perform with drummer Art Blakeys band that Marsalis ears opened to jazz. Marsalis, who was 19 at the time, sees it as a matter of developing as a person, and seeing the artistic opportunities, before being able to appreciate the music.Jazz wasnt a consideration to me till I matured as a person, and realized it offered me a whole field of possibilities as a musician, he said. Embracing jazz, Marsalis took jobs touring with Blakey, Lionel Hampton and Clark Terry, and formed a band with Wynton. But in 1985, Marsalis joined Stings band, bringing with him from his jazz combo pianist Kenny Kirkland. His father, he said, wasnt upset that he was leaving the jazz fold, only saddened that Wynton couldnt find suitable replacements for Branford and Kirkland, and that leaving spelled the end of a band of Marsalis brothers.Playing with Sting hardly meant confining himself to pop music. In 1986, Marsalis released two albums: Romance for the Saxophone, a recording of compositions by Ravel, Debussy and others; and Royal Garden Blues, an homage to New Orleans jazz produced by brother Delfeayo, that earned Marsalis a Grammy nomination. That year, Marsalis also toured with Herbie Hancocks quartet.Marsalis has been steadfast in broadening his musical sights, writing film scores, collaborating with artists from keyboardist Bruce Hornsby to hip-hop producer Guru, and continuing to perform and record jazz. In 1989, he started sitting in with the Dead at the occasional New York-area concert; his 1990 performance of the jazzy Eyes of the World found its way onto the Deads Best of the Arista Years collection (and is, in this Deadheads opinion, among the best tracks in the Deads official discography). Marsalis found the Dead to be worthy jamming partners.They always played well when I was around, he said. And I wasnt around the times they were reputed to play poorly. Its flattering to think that [I brought out the best in them]. Sometimes it takes an outsider to get their attention. I guess I gave them focus.In 1992, Marsalis became music director of the Tonight Show band, and recorded a blues album, I Heard You Twice the First Time. The following year, he formed Buckshot Lefonque, giving birth to the jazz/hip-hop hybrid known as acid jazz. Marsalis even stretched outside making music, taking a position as creative consultant to the Columbia Jazz label, and acting in the acclaimed film Eves Bayou. All the while, his jazz recordings were earning him a pile of Grammy nominations and awards.Bearden and beyondIn 1999, Marsalis formed a quartet to record Requiem, and the combo seems to have commanded his attention. Over the past four years, the Branford Marsalis Quartet with drummer Watts, bassist Revis and original pianist Kirkland who, after his 1999 death, was replaced by Calderazzo has released four CDs, each one brilliant. Though he is not limited to the quartet he has toured and recorded with his family, performs symphonic concerts, and last year launched his own label, Marsalis Music it is an unprecedented demonstration of continued focus.With this band, we have a lot of material to explore, said Marsalis. It doesnt get boring quickly.The quartets new CD is Romare Bearden Revealed, a celebration of the late Harlem painter and collage artist whose work was often inspired by jazz music. When Marsalis was contacted to take on the recording, sponsored by the Bearden Foundation and coinciding with a National Gallery exhibit of Beardens work, the saxophonist was about to take his first vacation in five years. But after examining a new book of Beardens art, Marsalis saw an opportunity he couldnt pass up.We realized no one could do this music better than we could, said Marsalis, who was acquainted with Bearden. Its great work and it stands the test of time.Perhaps what made the project most irresistible to Marsalis, though, was a certain quality he saw in Beardens work. Bearden, he believed, was in it to learn.He wasnt looking at what was commercial, and could make a quick buck, said Marsalis. He was a student of art.Stewart Oksenhorns e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com


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