Saxophonist, composer and bandleader Branford Marsalis' accomplishments surpass those of almost any other player in his generation. The oldest sibling from the famous New Orleans musical family that also includes Wynton, Jason, Delfeayo, Ellis III and pianist father Ellis, Branford's shown a brilliance on tenor, soprano and alto that has earned him three Grammys and an NEA Jazz Masters award. He's also been highly praised for impressive contributions to Broadway plays (a 2010 Drama Desk award and a 2010 Tony nomination for musical scores) and films, as well as extensive appearances with symphony orchestras and chamber ensembles, plus several classical recording sessions.
But when he returns to the Schermerhorn Symphony Hall Friday night for a concert that will feature duo and quartet performances, he'll be focusing on the fiery, thematically diverse and engaging jazz that's been his hallmark over the lengthy history of his current ensemble. In fact, emotional satisfaction remains more a point of emphasis than technical proficiency, even though he's certainly among the premier modern saxophone soloists. "When we were recording the songs for our forthcoming quartet album, there was one that the guys just couldn't get right," says Marsalis. "All the notes were there, but we weren't sustaining any emotion. The guys were running through the phrases. Then when we stopped, they didn't know where to come back in. That's one of the things you learn in classical music, how to use silence to maintain the emotion. We never could get it right, so we ended up leaving that song off the record.
"There's definitely an art in terms of playing jazz that is easy to overlook. The question is, are you really playing music, or are you just playing changes? It doesn't take that much to execute the notes, but to do it with feeling and in a way where you are creating something, that's the task. One thing I don't ever want to do when we're making records or playing concerts is be out there going through a routine. That's the opposite of what you should be doing as a jazz musician."
It's been more than three decades since Marsalis made his initial splash on a European tour playing alto and baritone sax in a big band led by the legendary Art Blakey, later joining his brother Wynton in Blakey's Jazz Messengers in 1981. They went on a Japanese tour with Herbie Hancock before forming Wynton's first band, with Branford now on soprano and tenor. But he's led his own group since 1985. Branford has focused on writing and playing his own music with the quartet since 1997. There have also been various thematic collaborations and, increasingly, more classical work, which he says poses some sturdy challenges.
"Whenever I do a classical gig there's this volume of stuff I have to learn that is vast, and a lot of it is beyond what I previously knew on the instrument," Marsalis laughs. "I've gotten to the point where I know a lot more, but the approaches are so different in terms of jazz and classical it's hard to really explain the difference. You can't shape a song in classical music to fit your personality or mask any deficiencies you have on your instrument. You can't make note substitutions or change the way something is written or phrased. There are so many times when you've practiced something and it sounded great in the rehearsal hall. Then you get on stage and the pressure of the moment affects how you're playing and it sounds horrible."
Another area where he's made inroads is running a label. Marsalis was a creative consultant and producer for Columbia Records from 1997 until 2001. He has not only operated Marsalis Music since 2002, but served as its principal producer. They've issued numerous outstanding sessions from a varied roster that's included Harry Connick Jr., Miguel Zenon, Doug Wamble, Alvin Batiste and many more, plus Marsalis' own quartet and last year's Songs of Mirth and Melancholy with Joey Calderazzo. Marsalis says, however, he may not be in that business much longer.
"Certainly there's an intrinsic reward you get from making jazz records in a way that honors the music," he says. "But from a fiscal standpoint, running a jazz label is the equivalent of putting money in a hole and setting it on fire. We could save money by cutting our albums the old way. You bring the musicians in for a day, cut 10 songs, then spend another day mixing it. But our engineer and I are very anal about sound. We spend two or three days just mixing every thing. We take time with recording. We spend a lot of money on the sessions, and there's no way you can make that back anytime soon the way jazz sells in the marketplace. Maybe you make it back in 20 years. The time will come when my accountant and I have to take a look at the bottom line and seriously consider how much longer I can do this. However for now, what we've released in every case is something we're proud we've done."
Besides his many other endeavors, Marsalis is very active on the academic front, saying this is where the future of jazz will be determined. "I always ask my students, 'Why are you playing jazz? I know you don't really like it.' A lot of them get defensive. But I ask them because it's important to know why you're doing something and what you want to accomplish. There's a notion about music that's become predominant in this country since World War II. A lot of people don't understand that the process of music is an evolutionary one. When you hear a great record you're hearing something that's as much the result of that process as the name on the record. But there tends to be this individualistic attitude, and this rush to proclaim someone the next great this or that. Some folks want to act as though they invented something new when they haven't, unless they've invented a 13th note.
"What I want to do now is continue making records where each one sounds different from the other, and continue making music with the quartet and in the classical sphere that I feel has quality and integrity. If I do that, I don't worry about what others write or say, nor am I concerned with those out there seeking the next new thing, whatever they think that is."
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