Interview | Branford Marsalis: Fearless lieder

Branford Marsalis performs this weekend at George Mason University. Courtesy Palma Kolansky

by Giovanni Russonello
Editor-in-chief

Branford Marsalis conveys his thoughts in conversation much as he does as a saxophonist. New ideas emerge with steady self-assurance, boldly and unceasingly. When he pauses he does it for emphasis – not because he has lost his train of thought or needs to reorient himself. If the tabloids could be bothered to expound on the scandals of the jazz world, Marsalis might be their go-to guy for headline-grabbing quotes. He’s called avant-garde legend Cecil Taylor’s demands on his audience “self-indulgent bullshit;” opined that “students today are completely full of shit,” overly coddled and under-criticized; and recently said of contemporary jazz, “There’s so little of it that’s actually good that when it’s good, it shocks me.” Marsalis’ hard-nosed perspective comes from decades spent as one of the most respected jazz saxophonists around, but it’s colored by his 10 years in the soap opera of American popular culture, first as a star in Sting’s touring band, then as musical director of the Tonight Show.

For more than 15 years now, Marsalis has focused once again on jazz, releasing a bevy of stellar post-bop albums and founding his own label, Marsalis Music. His latest record, Songs of Mirth and Melancholy, a duet with pianist and longtime accomplice Joey Calderazzo, explores the alternately disconsolate and ecstatic world of German classical folk music, or lieder. The album’s nine songs – all originals except for one piece by Brahms and another by Wayne Shorter – brood, sway and banter. Mostly, they sound like the unfolding of a story, one built of human joy and frailty. At the George Mason University Center for the Arts this Saturday, Marsalis will appear with his quartet, featuring Calderazzo, and the music will be decidedly more jazz-oriented. Below, the outspoken saxman and I discuss his outlook on contemporary jazz, his duo project with Calderazzo and his work as a record label exec.

Branford Marsalis and Joey Calderazzo, “Precious”

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CapitalBop: I’m sure you’re tired of talking about this topic, but you’re someone who feels that jazz’s lack of popularity isn’t necessarily the fault of the media or the fact that audiences have short attention spans. You say it’s probably the result of a lot of jazz today being kind of unexciting, spiritually and emotionally speaking. What do you think that jazz musicians can do specifically to speak to a wider audience?

Branford Marsalis: I don’t believe in the wider audience theory, I believe in getting better as musicians. Because listeners do have short attention spans, but there’s nothing that we can do to change that. I think that there’s a small percentage of the American record-buying, concert-going audience that has the intellectual capacity to embrace instrumental music. For most people, music for lyrics is going to be what it is, and I don’t believe we can sway them.

Separately, I just think that the musicianship is so bad right now, while instrumentalism is at an absolute high. Guys can play their instruments probably better than they ever could….

The thing that jazz musicians don’t really talk about or want to talk about is that the majority of time when people go to concerts, people are going to see the music. That’s what we do in our culture. In Germany, they go to hear the music, in America they go to see it. If you take the average American person – and this is something that I know from my time with Sting and with Jay [Leno] – people who are going to concerts say, “I’m looking forward to seeing you.” Okay, then you gotta give them something to see! And one of the easy things to give them to see is the fact that you actually like what you’re doing.

Most of the time, when laypeople come to my concerts, they say they just love watching the way we interact with each other in the band. If you go to a lot of jazz concerts now, guys aren’t even interacting with each other.

CB: You and Joey Calderazzo, whom you’ve been working with for a long time, share a love of lieder, and your new album is very influenced by the songs of the German Romantic era. You seem to be getting at something with the horn that most people approach with the voice, because lieder is played with piano and vocals.

BM: I’ve felt for a long time that all instrumentalists are just trying to imitate the human voice, since the voice was first.

CB: It makes me think of Louis Armstrong. His personality on his horn and on his voice were so intertwined.

BM: If Miles Davis could have sung, it would have been the same thing. You know, Sidney Bechet sang when he played, Charlie Parker sang when he played. That’s why I love that music. A lot of the modern jazz is more about really fast, brilliant execution. But for me it’s about singing. Joey and I both got to a place within our musical maturity that we could make a record like this. The main goal was to do a duo record where we weren’t just playing the way we play in quartets except the other guys aren’t there. The goal wasn’t to just play a bunch of bebop tunes and bebop licks while he walks bass lines in the left hand, and all that boring shit that is often on those records. So you make the record and then jazz guys say, “You know, I don’t know if this is a jazz record … because all the other duo records I have sound exactly the same, and that’s my comfort level. What is this? What category should it be in?”

To me, that’s a really cool question, because I never bought into the categories thing anyway. I just listen to music. So that’s been cool.

CB: You’re selective about which artists you sign to the Marsalis Records label, but Miguel Zenón is one of the few. What made you fall in love with his music?

BM: He has passion. I went to a concert not long ago where he was with another band, and some of the songs were sung. When he wasn’t playing, he was the only guy in the horn section moving from side to side, singing along with the song. The rest of them were just counting bars…. There were 18 guys on the stage, and they were all staring at the floor or at the music, counting the bars. And Miguel was sitting there, singing along with the song. He has a lot of that nerdy jazz thing in him, but I’m not opposed to the nerdy jazz thing as long as it’s coupled with the musical jazz thing.

That’s [John] Coltrane’s thing. You have all these people who talk about his mathematical approach to music, and I’m not opposed to that on the face of it, as long as it is accompanied with musicianship and an understanding of the blues – soul – and an ability to play that.

CB: You’ve also got entire books written about his spirituality.

BM: Yeah. Well, a lot of that stuff is hyperbole. Spirituality is a personal question.

CB: But it is one that he put into his music. He infused a lot of his music with a conscious pursuit of something substantive in that realm, right?

BM: Yeah, he was a spiritual guy. He was also a cutthroat, too. We like to try to make everything oversimplified, like cutthroats are cutthroats and spiritual guys are spiritual. Well, you know, he practiced “Giant Steps” for three or four months, he knew it was hard; so why didn’t he give it to the musicians to let them play a couple weeks before he called it on the session?

CB: That’s how “Moment’s Notice” got its name – Curtis Fuller told Coltrane, “Man, you give us a moment’s notice to learn this stuff.”

BM: Yeah, that don’t sound spiritual to me. But that doesn’t mean that he’s not a spiritual guy. I think you have a lot of complex elements that make Coltrane’s music what it is, and we often try and simplify it. The question is, how come you have the stuff Coltrane plays and you have all these other people who have studied it, and he sounds so good but they sound so bad? People will say, “Oh, it’s his spirituality.” It’s a little more than that….

All of the Coltrane modernists, they reject the old school. The biggest problem that I have with my students is that they’re all zero-sum game guys. It’s hard to get them to understand that failure’s the gateway to success. In addition, it’s the gateway to modernity. But those that want to self-identify as modernists would reject that idea because they’re modern, and they don’t want to take the time to learn the traditional stuff. Or as [saxophonist] Andrew Speight said to me brilliantly, “There was a time in jazz when the guys who had the core values kept the fringe in check and they informed one another. But now the fringe has become the core.” 

The Branford Marsalis Quartet performs at the George Mason University Center for the Arts at 8 p.m. on Saturday. Tickets range from $24 to $48, and can be purchased here.

5 Responses to Interview | Branford Marsalis: Fearless lieder

  1. when he says that, ” “students today are completely full of shit,” overly coddled and under-criticized”; He’s Right about that.? And, if I go on, then I might be right to do it but, lets just leave it at, me sayng – nuff said – to be continued i hope and trust…

  2. leider???? shouldn’t it be leader?

  3. Nice interview.

    While I agree with a lot of what I think his opinions are (and generally like his music) I think Mr. Marsalis has learned not only that audiences expect a show, but also that strong personalities and controversial expressions of opinions are marketable. He cultivates a pulpit and makes full use of it.

    I respect his ability to apparently play what he wants and to be very financially successful doing it. I’ ve observed that he is able to present musically complex material in an entertaining and popular way. He might be a model in that regard for those with similar aspirations. I think his popularity and commercial viability are important to him, so he does tend to those concerns, but also uses that platform artistically, and therefore generally practices what he preaches.

    His insights on how music that retains some artistic integrity can also succeed commercially have to be heeded, since his music does that.

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