[Dixielandjazz] Some Surprises From The Other Marsalis

Steve Barbone barbonestreet at earthlink.net
Fri Oct 6 09:05:00 PDT 2006


BUT:  His philosophy about the music will surprise and delight many of us,
as will the paragraph halfway down that I marked, as will the music he chose
to listen to with Ben Ratliff at this interview. (OKOM & Classical). This
guy is a treat to hear play, as well as read about.


NY TIMES - October 6, 2006 - By BEN RATLIFF - DURHAM, N.C.

Listening With Branford Marsalis

Walking a Beat With an Officer of the Jazz Police

IN late August Hurricane Ernesto was drawing close to North Carolina. Among
other things, this meant that Branford Marsalis wasn¹t going to play golf.
Around 11 in the morning, he came to the door of his tract mansion in his
T-shirt, shorts and socks. He was alone, and preoccupied by the knowledge
that his wife and two younger children were stuck in an airport in Sweden,
their flight delayed because of a maintenance problem.

A saxophone was out, and the television was on. He had been practicing while
watching a DVD of ³The Seige,² with Denzel Washington and Bruce Willis. Five
years ago he moved to this house, next to one of the better golf courses in
North Carolina. ³I¹m in a place now where all I can focus on is bettering
myself,² he said. ³There¹s no distractions. I listen to music all day.² It
seemed like a good time to visit and listen along with him.

Mr. Marsalis, 46, the saxophonist and bandleader, is the eldest of the six
Marsalis brothers; three others are also in jazz: Wynton, the trumpeter and
major domo of Jazz at Lincoln Center; Delfeayo, the trombonist and record
producer; and Jason, the drummer. He lived in New Rochelle, N.Y., and
Brooklyn before North Carolina, but moved south to remove his family,
particularly his 20-year old son, Reese, from what he describes as a
particularly East Coast sense of entitlement.

A side benefit was that he could concentrate on his own work. It has been a
generative period. He established his own record label (Marsalis Music), and
he and his band have an artist-in-residency job at North Carolina Central
University, a historically black college in Durham. He and his wife, Nicole,
now also have two daughters: Peyton, 5, and Thaïs, 18 months.

Mr. Marsalis has also given up the idea of being part of the pop-culture
mainstream, which had been a goal when he entered Berklee College of Music
in 1981, wanting to be a producer after the models of Quincy Jones or George
Martin. It was part of his agenda again when he joined Sting¹s band for two
years in the mid-1980¹s, and again when he led the band on ³The Tonight Show
With Jay Leno² from 1992 to 1995.

It is not easy for him to leave this point, about dropping out of the rat
race, unexamined. Mr. Marsalis is an opinionated sort. Twenty years ago
those opinions could be loud and grating; now there is a weathered and
empathetic feeling about them, but they still arrive at a rate of about one
per sentence. 

They tend to be standards-of-quality judgments. Like the rest of his family,
when he finds jazz, or any music, not reflecting enough study and
seriousness, he doesn¹t mince words. These can feel like attacks on fragile
targets, and there is a jazz-police reputation to the whole family that many
of a more pluralist mind-set can never forgive. But where Wynton, in his
arts-administrator role with Jazz at Lincoln Center, is concerned with
getting America to care about jazz at all, Branford is naturally more
idiosyncratic; his opinions are more mordant. He represents nobody but

At the end of the day, we were listening to something I had taken just for
fun, an unissued live Coltrane recording from 1961. He shook his head. ³This
is unbelievable, man. But my friends would never understand this. And they
shouldn¹t. It¹s for us to understand and enjoy and love, and the hell with
the rest of it. The whole self-aggrandizing stance might get you some
attention, but in my mind I¹ve checked out on that whole thing. I moved
here. I¹m done. I just want to play. I don¹t want to be in magazines.²

HIS own band, the Branford Marsalis Quartet, is in an exciting phase. In the
late 1990¹s, getting its bearings after the death of its previous pianist,
Kenny Kirkland, it had the potential to be one of the best small groups in
jazz; more recently it has truly become that. Formed in 1997, its lineup has
stayed intact for the last seven years, with the pianist Joey Calderazzo,
the bassist Eric Revis and the drummer Jeff (Tain) Watts.

Its new record, ³Braggtown,² accommodates hurtling, physical Coltrane-ish
music, slow and mournful ballads and a version of ³O Solitude,² a song
written by the 17th-century English composer Henry Purcell.

Mr. Marsalis is fascinated by slow music ‹ he recently recorded an album of
crawling-tempo ballads called ³Eternal² ‹ and also by classical music, and
seems to be working toward a way that a jazz quartet can use classical
material more flexibly.

³I¹m listening to a lot of lieder right now,² he said, ³because I like the
idea that you can write songs with a certain amount of emotional content,
especially when you don¹t know what the lyrics say. From happy to sad to
wistful to melancholy.²

The first CD Mr. Marsalis chose to listen to was a collection of
performances from Bing Crosby¹s radio show by Crosby and Louis Armstrong,
made between 1949 and 1951.


One of Mr. Marsalis¹s tough-love opinions is that jazz has precisely the
level of exposure it deserves. ³Musicians are always talking about, ŒWhy
isn¹t jazz popular,¹ ² he said. ³But musicians today²‹ and he was talking
specifically about jazz musicians ‹ ³are completely devoid of charisma.
People never really liked the music in the first place. So now you have
musicians who are proficient at playing instruments, and people sit there,
and it¹s just boring to them ‹ because they¹re trying to see something, or
feel it.² 

------END NOTE

We listened to a very short version of ³Up a Lazy River,² from March 16,
1949, in which Armstrong sings, scatting and trading phrases with Jack
Teagarden, and then plays a little trumpet.

Mr. Marsalis admired Armstrong¹s chromatic run of notes at the end, but he
wanted to talk about simpler things. ³One of the things I like about all the
swing music is the songs that they picked didn¹t rely on heavy amounts of
harmony,² he said. ³What they relied on more was a really strong melodic
sense, and a certain level of charisma to pull the song off. Even in parts
where Louis isn¹t doing anything particularly comedic, people start
laughing, because of his body language and the way he gets the notes out.²

He played the recording again and focused on Armstrong¹s vocal solo, which
starts after the first eight bars. ³What he was singing: that¹s a solo,² he
said. ³If I play that as a solo, people say, ŒThat¹s bad, where¹d you get
that from?¹ Check it out.² Mr. Marsalis sang along to a mellow, linear,
melodic part of the improvisation. ³Sounds like Lester Young,² he said. He
sang along to the more exaggerated, note-smearing part that immediately
follows. ³If you can play that, man, people will go nuts,² he added.

He found another Armstrong-Teagarden track, ³Rockin¹ Chair,² a studio
recording from 1947, with a slow, comfortable tempo. ³See,² he continued,
talking about Armstrong, ³he hears the sound, he hears the things that go
against the groove. He can express the song in a conversational way. A lot
of other guys, at the time and even now, it¹s like they¹re giving a speech.
It¹s prepared. With him, it¹s just very conversational.²

³And,² he added, ³that tempo no longer exists in jazz. Find it. Who plays
it? Nobody. That¹s the tempo that pulls your drawers down. That¹s what Art
Blakey used to say.²

Mr. Marsalis talked about playing in an R&B cover band called the Creators
as a teenager in New Orleans. ³The job is to get people¹s booties wiggling,²
he concluded, ³and get them to dance. If it becomes too clinical, they

The Creators learned this through misguided ambition. This band prided
itself on hip segues: an Earth, Wind and Fire song, into the ³Star Trek²
theme as arranged by Eumir Deodato, into a highly chromatic version of K C
and the Sunshine Band¹s ³Boogie Man.² None of it moved the crowd, though.

³People would just sit there, bored as hell,² he said. So the band got a new
bass player and a new drummer. ³And then,² he explained, ³we still did all
that frilly stuff on the top, but it was grooving, so people were cool with
it. People don¹t mind the frilly stuff ‹ they don¹t even pay attention to
it. That¹s more for our personal edification.²

He put on a jazz analogue of the same story. It was ³How Can You Face Me?,²
by Fats Waller, from 1934. It¹s pretty busy on the upper levels. Clarinet,
guitar and trumpet are adding lots of ornament, and Waller, singing and
playing piano, pours personality all over it. But the rhythm section stays
steady; the bass notes (played by Billy Taylor) and the drum grooves (played
by Harry Dial) are plump with volume and presence.

He made a steady, bouncing motion with his hand, following the rhythm
section. ³That¹s where the dance beat comes in. It¹s all about that. The
other people just start launching off, but they just sit there and keep the
beat.² After Waller¹s opening piano solo, he starts to bust out over the
other lukewarm soloists, yelling at the song¹s imaginary object: ³Yass!
Don¹t you talk back back to me! Sheddup!²

Mr. Marsalis beamed and started giggling at Waller¹s outbursts. ³As long as
it¹s swinging, you can do that. I just love the fact that he¹s so exuberant,
and so foolish.² 

Mr. Marsalis next wanted to talk about what he calls authenticity. He means
the baseline truths of jazz, the groove and the pulse and the aesthetic
slang, rather than the pyrotechnics. He puts on Bessie Smith¹s ³Need a
Little Sugar in My Bowl,² from 1931, where Smith is accompanied by only the
pianist Clarence Williams. She sings with concentration and force, almost
simply. It¹s a sex song, and it is not coy: Bessie Smith is confronting you.
Only once does she put a real ornament on a note, and it¹s like a little
bomb going off. ³Whoo! Watch out, girl!² Mr. Marsalis whooped.

When he plays that song for students, he explained, their response is
usually summed up as, ³Where¹s the music?² He picked up an alto saxophone
and played the melody line very straight, with no swing. ³No authenticity,²
he said. ³I tell them, man, you gotta growl, you gotta bend the notes.² He
played it again with slurs and buzzes. ³The way most musicians are taught
now relies on what they see, first, and what they hear, second,² Mr.
Marsalis said. ³They hear but they don¹t hear.²

HIS obsession with lieder really has to do with the strength of the
melodies. Another point in his long list of What¹s Wrong With Jazz Today is
that young players tilt toward the standards with the most chord changes,
which he feels often have the worst melodies.

Recently a musician was arguing with him, contending that modern jazz had
bigger fish to fry than melody. ³So I said, ŒModern music can¹t have
melody?¹ ² he recounted. ³I said, ŒLet me play you this.¹ ²

Mr. Marsalis put on Stravinsky¹s ³Ebony Concerto,² written in 1945, as
performed by the Ensemble Intercontemporain, conducted by Pierre Boulez. It
does have melody ‹ not jazz-ballad melody, but strong melody anyway. More,
it has one great idea after another for arrangement and instrumentation:
acoustic guitar used beautifully, giant tonal shifts, passages with muted
trumpet and flutes that presage Gil Evans¹s work 15 years later.

After spending a few minutes pinpointing parts of classical works that jazz
composers stole from, Mr. Marsalis described how part of one of his new
pieces on ³Braggtown² ‹ a ballad called ³Fate² ‹ is borrowed from
³Götterdämmerung.² Mr. Marsalis said that during the days of working on Mr.
Leno¹s show he used to come home and listen to it from beginning to end,
lying on the floor.

The motif he borrowed ‹ usually called the ³fate² motif ‹ comes right after
the opera¹s overture; we listened to the version played by the Berlin
Philharmonic and conducted by Herbert von Karajan. It is a slow, tense
series of contrary-motion chords, played by woodwinds going up and brass
going down. In Mr. Marsalis¹s tune, it becomes the first four notes of the
opening theme; he plays it again right before Mr. Calderazzo¹s piano solo.

³Straight-up Wagner, dude,² he confessed.

The Branford Marsalis Quartet plays through this weekend at the Jazz
Standard, 116 East 27th Street, Manhattan;(212) 576-2232.

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