For Branford Marsalis’ 55th birthday, here’s the final cut of a DownBeat feature that I wrote about him in 2008, and a link to an uncut Blindfold Test that we did in 2002.
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“It’s important to have cats who can push you and let you express yourself through the music, to actually play anything you want,” said Branford Marsalis, the afternoon of his quartet’s first concert gig of 2008.
The saxophonist sat on his hotel room floor in White Plains, N.Y., slicing a grapefruit and an apple. Outside, the rain came down in torrents, as it had throughout the morning. Airline delays jeopardized the arrival of bassist Eric Revis, who lives in San Antonio, and pianist Joey Calderazzo, who lives in North Carolina, not far from Marsalis.
Already it had been a busy day. Having arrived the night before, Marsalis practiced for an hour or so before catching a ride through the downpour to nearby SUNY-Purchase to lead an 11 a.m. master class. Striding across an open mezzanine to the music building with neither a hat nor an umbrella, he was sanguine and philosophical. The roads had not flooded, and drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts, a Brooklynite, was driving up. “We’ll play duo if we have to,” he remarked.
This circumstance would be fascinating, but unfortunate. For one thing, the quartet plays the New York area infrequently, and the Pepsico Theater, the world-class facility on campus, was almost sold out. For another, as evidenced on Braggtown (Marsalis Music), the quartet’s most recent release, it’s a singular unit, able to generate and sustain seamless, organic dialogue through an array of emotional and structural environments—affirmative blues connotations (“Jack Baker”); lyric tone poems (“Hope”) and Euro-Classic homages (“Fate” and “O Solitude”); inflamed spirit talk (“Black Elk Speaks”); kinetic, complex Afro-diasporic rhythms (“Blackzilla”).
The master class transpired in a quasi-amphitheater with a giant pipe organ, in front of which Marsalis sat on a bench and, without ceremony, asked for questions. For the next hour, he addressed a slew of topics—practice procedures, the art of record-making, current favorites, how he filters non-jazz styles into his conception. Then he sat for an interview with a student researching a thesis on Kenny Kirkland, the pianist in the quartet’s first edition, which coalesced in 1988. Marsalis responded to a series of questions about Kirkland’s idiosyncracies, musicianship, position on the piano influence tree and self-destructive habits that eventually killed him in October 1998.
Back at the hotel, Marsalis returned to the subject. “I’d heard Kenny play with Angie Bofill when I was at Berklee, and was talking about how bad he was,” he reminisced. “My next-door neighbor knew him, and I got his number and called. He answered the phone.
“‘Hey, Kenny Kirkland, my name’s Branford Marsalis. You might have heard of my brother, Wynton Marsalis, who’s in New York. We want to come play with you,’” he continued. “He laughed. I must have sounded like the biggest hick—I mean, in terms of my diction and dialect. He said, ‘Cool. I live on 30th Street, right down from the train station.’ Me, Victor Bailey, Donald Harrison, Smitty Smith, Lance Bryant, maybe a couple of other people, got on the train, went to New York and rang his doorbell.’ We had our jam session with Kenny Kirkland.”
Around this time, Marsalis, whose Berklee roommates included drummers Marvin Smitty Smith and Gene Jackson, met Jeff Watts. “A lot of people thought Tain was unorthodox, and didn’t like to play with him,” he said. “But I gravitated toward him immediately. I was listening to Lester Young and Wayne Shorter, and he had just started listening to Elvin Jones, but his sensibility came out of fusion. He knew how to play different time signatures, played ideas through them, and you always knew where the beat was. When Wynton started his band, I thought Tain would be more effective than Smitty for the music he was playing, and I told him to hire Tain. When Tain and Wynton split, I was waiting for him.
From 1988 to 1992, when Marsalis brought his troops to Los Angeles to form the core of Jay Leno’s “Tonight Show” house band, the quartet was the hottest band in hardcore jazz. All members possessed formidable chops, and could swing with the best, a quality less evident on their studio recordings than on a 1989 bootleg of a tradition-centric set by the quartet at the Village Vanguard. Marsalis’ personal charisma, conceptual flair and pop culture cred from proximity to Sting and Spike Lee persuaded jazz-ignorant audiences to applaud his every move, and his superb, insouciant musicianship attracted a generation of aspirants.
Comparing the ’89 Vanguard document to Braggtown’s polymath erudition testifies to Marsalis’ personal evolution after leaving Leno in 1996. He hit the shed hard, and focused on classical repertoire to increase his scope.
“At 37, I started working on the Ibert Concertino, and within the first half-hour came face to face with virtually every weakness I had,” Marsalis said. “On the first page, there were five or six notes—low E, low D, low C, low B, low B-flat and low C-sharp—that I couldn’t even play. I spent years learning to control them. Now I’ll write songs in the lower range, and I play those notes instead of subtoning. I don’t have to rely on one thing to get the job done—i.e., my strength is playing really fast, so I’ll play really fast on every song, and only play songs that allow me to play fast. We can play fast songs or slow songs; happy songs or sad songs. My possibilities are much more expansive.”
Marsalis bedrocks experimental elaborations of modernist vocabulary—Keith Jarrett’s rubato ebb-and-flow of the ‘70s; non-western and Euro-Classical repertoire; the ways in which John Coltrane, Wayne Shorter and Sonny Rollins created narrative from the outer partials; the overtones and harmonics of speculative improvising—with specific tradition tropes. He deploys tension-and-release, insists that the ride cymbal not only swing, but ring, and wants a thumping bass to drive the band, notions that he assimilated while a member of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers during the early ’80s. Watts orchestrates and propels the flow with a global array of beats and Blakeyesque force.
“The requirement is not to sound like an old man, but to use the music of the old men to get where you’re trying to go,” Marsalis said. “Then it sounds like we’re having the same conversation. Musicians use Wynton as an example of some stodgy old codger who’s criminally narrowing the definition of jazz, but we share the exact same philosophy. My band plays a style that doesn’t allow people to say that and sound intelligent at the same time. The more I listen to the old things, the more modern my music is. It’s a wealth of information. If the word is ‘neo-traditionalist,’ then I’m a neo-trad.”
As if to signify on that remark, Marsalis’ cell phone blared the fanfare of Louis Armstrong’s “Cornet Chop Suey.” Rob Hunter, his road manager, informed him that Revis and Calderazzo had landed and were en route. Marsalis donned his overcoat, took his saxophone case and went to the lobby to await their arrival.
Watts sauntered in, soon followed by Revis and Calderazzo. After a perfunctory exchange of ritualized insults and salutations, Marsalis hustled Calderazzo and Revis into his rented car and drove through the rain to the theater for the cover photo shoot, with Watts tailgating. After the shoot, two hours ahead of hit time, they returned to the hotel and convened in Marsalis’ quarters.
“I was new to checking out jazz when I met Branford,” Watts recalled. “I played with him on some cool recitals, and we did maybe three gigs outside of school, but mostly we hung out socially. Then he moved to New York. I was walking by a pay phone on the fifth floor of the dormitory, and somebody said, ‘Jeff just walked by,’ and connected us. Branford told me, ‘You’ve got to leave school because my brother started his band, and you’re going to be in it.’”
Marsalis interjected, “He said, ‘OK, cool. Later.’”
“I was aloof in those days,” Watts said. “I moved to New York, we got on Wynton’s group, grew up as musicians and developed a vocabulary together—and separately. Since I didn’t have much vocabulary, he’d anticipate my figures and play them along with me. Trying to dodge him set me up for a portion of how I play now—I try to take melodic stuff and other ideas out of context and move them to different places, but still have them serve the function. When we got together after Wynton, it was comfortable immediately, since so much of my conception came from playing in conjunction with him and Kenny.”
“In Wynton’s band we thought it out as it happened,” Marsalis said. “We developed our philosophy, our basic premises. One idea was to play songs the way classical musicians do, where you jumble a bunch of notes, and they don’t have to be in time if the musicians all can hear it.
“There’s a drum ensemble in Bahia called Timbalada that’s like the brass bands in New Orleans,” he continued. “I loved a certain rhythm on one of their first records, so when I was in Brazil I asked them, ‘How do you count this out?’ They said, ‘We don’t understand the question.’ I said, ‘When you start this rhythm, do you count on four or on one?’ ‘We don’t know what you’re talking about.’ After 20 minutes, they understood. ‘That’s not how we work,’ they said. ‘We’re not limited by counting. This is the first rhythm and this is the second rhythm.’ I realized that the entire thing is one long rhythm, like a conversation. It’s not counted out, not subdivided, not parsed out in bars. That’s where ‘Lykief’ came from. It’s not in a time signature. Bar lines separate the melodies, so they can understand where the target points are.”
In 1988, Revis, 20, was one of many youngsters taking notice. “They were my idols,” he said.
Marsalis pretended to vomit, and Watts uncorked a howling laugh.
“Eric’s sound is the sound of doom—big, thick, percussive,” Marsalis said. Recruited for Marsalis’ 1996 Buckshot LeFunque tour after apprenticing with Betty Carter, Revis was, Marsalis said, “raw as hell, but he won me over with his determination and desire. He had a rough time at first. All Kenny wanted was strong, solid quarter notes, not all those hip extra beats, and he went off on him. ‘Why did you hire this cat?’ I said, ‘We’ve all been where he is, but I like where he’s going.’ Right before Kenny died, he said, ‘Yeah, Revis is getting it together; he’s going to be all right.’”
Kirkland’s legacy made life complex for Calderazzo, already an established professional for 11 years when Marsalis hired him.
“Wynton came on the scene when I was 17,” Calderazzo said. “I had never heard anybody like Kenny, so he was an instant hero. I was 14 when I met Branford and Tain, visiting my brother at Berklee.”
Marsalis interjected. “Being from Louisiana, Berklee was funny then, because the whole race issue in the South had started to develop a sophistication, and up north it was different. All these black people would have a jam session in this practice room, and all the white guys would stand outside the door and look in, but never enter, like we were going to eat them or something. Tim Williams, who ran the sessions, said, ‘Let them stay out there.’ Joey saw us, and he was jumping to see in, so we saw this head going up and down. He started knocking, opened the door and said ‘Can I come in?’ ‘Yeah, come on in. What do you want to play?’ ‘Moment’s Notice’—and he burned. It didn’t take on any racial connotations in his mind. He wasn’t scared of black people.”
“I hung out in the Mount Vernon projects,” Calderazzo added. “They weren’t too far from where I grew up in New Rochelle. I hung out with all the races.”
“Until today,” Watts shot back.
“The first few weeks were rocky,” Calderazzo recalled. “In some ways, I was probably the wrong guy. We were on the road a few months ago, and I heard Kenny on some bootlegs on the Internet,” Calderazzo said. “I remember saying to Tain, ‘I’m Chick.’ That’s how I felt when Chick replaced Herbie in Miles’ band.”
Part of the problem, Calderazzo noted, is that Kirkland’s tunes, which had specific voicings, were staples of the quartet’s repertoire, and he felt ill-equipped to play them. A burning player with an encyclopedic command of harmony, who had played with Michael Brecker since 1987, he was unaccustomed to Kirkland’s predisposition, as Watts put it, “to put his energy into the ensemble to give the music a certain resonance and vibration rather than put himself on display.” An even bigger obstacle was decoding the aesthetic that governed the quartet’s gestural procedures.
“I was playing the wrong style,” Calderazzo said. “Plus, I wasn’t swinging. I’d never played anything slow. If Michael or Bob Berg or whoever it was played a blues (I’m naming white guys, but a lot of black musicians also), it was, 1-2, 1-2-3,’ and play all your shit on it. With Branford, it was ‘de … dank, de … de … dank,’ and I either played quadruple time or sounded bad at best. We were doing it one time, and Tain was laughing.”
“You played something so bad that I looked at Tain, and Tain was looking right at me at the same time,” Marsalis interrupted. “That’s what was so funny.”
“I could have just played double time,” Calderazzo injected, “which nine out of 10 guys would have done, and it would have been …”
“You’re fired,” Marsalis retorted.
“I tried to accommodate …”
“… my lovely boss.”
“Later Joey comes up to me and says, ‘That’s fucked up; you’re laughing at me,’” Marsalis said. “I said, ‘Learn how to play it, and then can’t nobody laugh.’ Then he went on and he got it.”
“I don’t get laughed at any more,” Calderazzo said.
“You went and got it,” Marsalis repeated. “He did the work. He got the records. He didn’t go away sulking or whining. That fire comes out in the music. Sometimes we’re playing gigs, and it’s like the last tune we’re ever going to play. More lately than before.”
“This band has little to do with personal performance,” Calderazzo said. “Until a few years ago, my career was all about, ‘How did I play?’ The band could play badly, but all that mattered is I played my ass off. During the last nine years, I’ve worked harder than in my whole career at just learning and accepting and trying to get better.”
For Revis, Calderazzo’s Miles Davis analogy was entirely apropos. “When I first got into music, everybody was checking out Wynton’s band, and nobody could figure it out,” he said. “With all the time permutations on Black Codes, it was like calculus, and I was trying to navigate ii-V-I’s in a reasonable fashion. Later, I started to understand that to call it math-based is a misnomer.”
“We didn’t play based on paradigms,” Marsalis said. “Tain is a melodic player, not a rhythmic player. It isn’t theoretical. You can’t count it. He would just hear shit, and throw it in. It was like one was his enemy. It would go on and on, and if you didn’t know where you were, you were dead. Whenever drummers sit in on our band after hearing Tain, they play loud and bash, just like an American in Europe asks a question, and when they say, ‘I don’t speak English,’ they speak louder and slower, like that’s going to make everything cool.”
Marsalis parsed the distinction between technical facility and conceptual understanding.“With the proper amount of time and patience, anybody can learn how to play a bunch of runs,” he said. “But I wanted to get certain things I hear in old records. In 1941, Duke Ellington’s band was playing with two mikes placed 18 feet in front of the band, 18 feet high and about 16 feet away, and you can hear the bass crystal clear, with no amp, no mike or nothin’, That’s the sound I want. The bass player had to think about the team.”
Revis: “I’ve had this argument with several bass players. They say, ‘Why can’t we play lines? I want to play like Charlie Parker.’”
Marsalis: “Then get a guitar!”
Revis: “This misconception that the bass has to be liberated. Liberated from what? Did Wilbur Ware need to be liberated from anything? Does Charlie Haden? The band allowed me to actualize my own voice. I knew the earlier records, and went through a period of thinking that was the sound. Jeff and Kenny encouraged me not to try to sound like that, but to play myself. That gave me courage to interject my personality after I adapted and served the function. I’d been checking out a lot of ‘avant-garde’ music and playing gigs outside of Branford’s band, and the first time I went into my Peter Kowald or William Parker bag, Branford was like, ‘Man, what are you doing?’”
Marsalis: “Ottawa. That was hilarious. Joey was out with Mike, and couldn’t make the gig, so my dad played it. When Eric started playing, I was like, ‘What in the hell?’”
Revis: “This is like bragging on family, but we do things better than any band out here. We can play sensitive or go to the wall. Every record, Branford has a concept of exactly how and where he wants it done, how he wants it to sound. He works quick, so it’s two or three takes, and you’re stuck. But even if you don’t understand it in the moment, in hindsight, it always sounds great.”
Calderazzo: “Everybody in the band has something to say. We’ve learned to play together—and on a fast level—at all times. Rhythmic, harmonic and melodic information flies across the stage all night long.”
Marsalis: “But I don’t think anybody’s listening. People come to me and say, ‘I love your stuff.’ Then they’ll mention Bloomington, Trio Jeepy, Requiem. They don’t say anything about Eternal, Braggtown or Tain’s records. And it was 10 years ago when cats started saying, ‘Man, you was killin’ on Bloomington.’ Historically, this is what happens. Given that fact, just play. I’m not going to play for accolades. I’m playing for you all.”
Calderazzo: “I spent all my years, you know, wanting it. Now I don’t care! I started playing solo piano. I’ll stay home and play.”
Revis: “I’m not saying I don’t care. But it’s kind of funny that certain things are heralded and certain things aren’t.”
Marsalis: “When I was with Wynton, people said I sounded like Wayne Shorter. ‘All the badass saxophone players out there, and that’s who you want to sound like?’ Now, what are they saying? ‘Wayne is the greatest! Wayne is the man.’ This is just how it is.”
Revis: “It’s like Keith’s band 30 years ago with Dewey and Charlie and Paul Motian. Nobody gave them any love up until damn near now.”
There was no lack of love from the sold-out house when Marsalis and crew strode onstage. With neither rehearsal nor sound-check, the quartet was in game shape, slaloming through the fiendish twists and turns of seven assorted burnouts and ballads with crisp spontaneity and formal command.
Not that they had been idle: A week before the concert, Marsalis convened them in Raleigh-Durham, N.C., to record a Ned Rorem composition, “Lions (A Dream),” with the North Carolina Symphony. This came several months after a San Francisco performance of “Focus,” the 1960s Eddie Sauter–Stan Getz collaboration.
“These projects force us to think differently,” Marsalis said from North Carolina Central College in Durham three weeks later. “Those musical and emotional experiences enter the repertoire. On the Rorem piece, our job was to create a dream-like sequence—it occurs in a peaceful setting, and in the middle a lion shows up and eats the people—and to give it the looseness of a jazz band playing a tune, but keep that beautiful, serene quality. Then the orchestra surrounds you and swallows you whole. You can’t just play as loud as you want, or the way Trane would play ‘I Want To Talk About You.’ You can’t start thinking about the changes. You’re thinking, ‘What is the emotional content of what I’m trying to do?’”
He related an esthetic dispute with Delfeayo Marsalis, his younger brother and long-time producer, about the orientation of his next recording, on which the quartet will interact with an orchestra. “Delf’s idea of the record was based on Charlie Parker With Strings, Clifford Brown With Strings, Wynton’s Hot House Flowers,” Marsalis said. “I heard it differently. He said, ‘Well, it’s about you.’ I said, ‘No, it’s about the group, and now the group includes 35 strings.’ I don’t want to play solos while the strings play whole notes behind us. I want to highlight the malleability of jazz. A jazz combo is like an insurgent group, and an orchestra is like a large military. We’re small, agile and mobile. They’re not. So give them the meat, and we’ll react to them, as opposed to the orchestra reacting to the jazz band.”
Asked why the quartet performs less frequently than it once did, Marsalis responded, “I have a pile of theories. For one thing, there’s a perception of us that stems from me—arrogant, cocky, thinks he’s better than everybody, thinks he knows everything, neoclassicist. Name it. That perception, combined with promoters thinking that the challenging style of music we play does not sell a lot of tickets, combined with our refusal when we go to Europe to let them record us and own the rights in perpetuity.
“Plus, with what I have to pay these guys to keep them, it’s hard to bring them into clubs, because I won’t realize any real profit,” he continued. “It’s a good investment, though, because if we want to let people know what we’re actually doing, the clubs are where we need to do it. I don’t know what good buzz is actually worth, but on our club tour in Europe a few years ago, we got more buzz within the first three days than we’d had in years. But being in clubs too much also makes it difficult to establish a clientele, because people think, ‘I’ll catch him next time; he’ll be back next month.’”
Marsalis states that Watts, Calderazzo and Revis hold the key to the quartet’s future. “I leave them an option to quit if they don’t think it’s right,” he said. “If Tain starts getting a lot of gigs with his band, and that’s what he wants, how can I fault him?”
Should that occur, Marsalis added, “Clearly, I would do something else. Play more classical music. Play with a trio. More likely, now that I’m at Central, I’d get some youngsters and start over—these church kids have endless possibilities. But ultimately, we’ll always have to find each other, because right now there are no other musical situations.” DB