BRANFORD MARSALIS INTERVIEWED (1988): Family matters

 |   |  9 min read

BRANFORD MARSALIS INTERVIEWED (1988): Family matters

Alright, here’s one for old folks. Don’t you wonder what ever happened to Chris Jagger? Yes, Mick’s brother - you must remember him, he launched his own recording career somewhere back there in the late 60s. It was around the time Fred Lennon (yep, John’s dad) released his first - and only -- single.

OK, that’s cruel, but you have to sympathise with these people. When it's all happening for someone in your family, why shouldn't it happen for you? Same environment, same genes, right?

In some families this fame thing comes easily though. Like The Jacksons - whew, that Michael; wow, that Janet. Hot stuff.

But maybe they are too studio-coiffured and video-crafted. Then look to a music where the playing is put up front -like jazz, for example. And the family which is doing it? The Marsalis mob from New Orleans who are hot, committed and controversial.

Brother Branford is known in some circles as Sting’s sax player and in others as a pretty sharp jazz musician on to his fourth album under his own name. Then there is brother Wynton, the trumpeter hailed in some quarters as the new Miles Davis but a bit of a reactionary intent on doing down any musician he sees as demeaning the purity of acoustic jazz.

Yet another brother, Delfeayo, has done production on Branford's albums and most recently the new one by Courtney Pine, an English sax player in the vanguard of Britain‘s new crop of smart-suited saxists.

Maybe such careers came easy in the Marsalis family however. Their father Ellis is a highly regarded pianist and academic in New Orleans. Quite a family.

And somewhere in there is Mrs Marsalis -- a woman who obviously has a story of ber own to tell.

Speaking from his home in New York on the eve of Sting's Australian tour and the release of his new album, Random Abstract, Branford Marsalis is (like brother Wynton, who proved an amiable if single-minded cuss at the Festival of Arts in March) cheerful and easygoing.

He’s putting together a tape for a party on Saturday and has just finished recording Marvin Gaye’s Let‘s Get It On.

“Nobody listens to Marvin any more. This hip-hop stuff is killing society," he laughs. "I like some of it -- like Public Enemy - but I don't see it as a viable alternative to real music. It's a cute little entertainment thing but l figured it would die about three years ago, so I’m not predicting any more."bran2

Unlike brother Wynton, who has so deeply immersed himself in jazz he admits he can't name 10 rock albums, Branford is entirely comfortable with rock music - up to a point.

“I always liked Sting’s music. It's exciting and I loved the Police, so this was a chance for me to play some rock'n'roll - but rock with class.

“A lot of people say what they like about rock is the freedom, that reckless abandon where you don’t have to feel responsible - like heavy metal. That’s cool for people who want to do that. But for me it isn’t my thing, so when l finish this tour I’m done with pop.

“As a jazz musician you have to work hard to get a lot of technical things together in your playing but you lose them in a short time just playing pop.

“For a while it din't bother me but when you try to play jazz again it doesn't work - and that hurts.“

During the Sting years he hasn't been entirely away from jazz, however. He recorded two albums, Renaissance and the new Random Abstract, in that time and also worked with Herbie Hancock's band.

The critical reception given to his two albums has been favourable, but hardly ecstatic.

The standard line is he is moving at an achingly slow speed towards finding his own sound, and while no one will dispute his dazzling technical skills, he has often sounded like the sum of his influences rather than his own man. Echoes of past masters like John Coltrane, Charlie Parker, Ben Webster and Wayne Shorter all haunt his playing, and the new album is no exception.

In fact, Random Abstract gives even more ammunition to critics as he deliberately plays material in the Shorter, Coltrane or Webster manner.

But 27-year-old Branford is prepared for the snipes and comments. He’s seen it all before - with Wynton.

“I was lucky to be a first-hand witness to see what happened to Wynton, but critics' opinions really don’t matter all that much. I wasn't particularly interested, nor was I ready to rush into some new unique style.

"You could say I sound like Coltrane or Webster -- but how many other people do you know in my age bracket who could put out the records which sound like a bunch of different guys? You can’t name them."

He goes on to say how great saxophone players like Sonny Rollins and Wayne Shorter have shown him how they can play in the styles of other artists but also create their own-voice. He feels he is still exploring the long legacy left by earlier players and on his way to discovering his own style.

“You know Dizzy Gillespie tells me I'm doing good so I should keep it up, Sonny calls and says it's alright and Dexter Gordon leaves a message on my answerphone which says, ‘I hear what you are doing, keep the fire burning’.

“All the musicians say I’m a good player and some critic tells me I suck – now who am I going to believe?” he asks with a laugh. `bran2_1

He excuses himself from the phone to choose some more music for his party tape and is back within seconds.

“I’ve got that Atlantic Rhythm and Blues re-issue set so I think I'll put down a little something by the Coasters and . . . oh . . . the Exciters, I just love them," he says with delight. But he doesn't leave the phone to do it. He manages the manoeuvre via his hi-tech remote.

“Every time I come home I add to my stereo,” he says by way of explanation. “Now I’ve got a DAT machine, a CD, three VCRs, three cassette players and I’m constantly taping music, learning music and making music.

“I look forward to coming home for an extended period. I’ve been on the road for about three-and-a-half years now so I love to get home and buy some records. And you can't practice on the road."

He places special emphasis on the wort "home," and gossip has it that being married and with a family has given this particular Marsalis a stable base to work from.

Plans to bring him to this country for a concert after the Sting tour of Australia fell through because he wanted to get home for his son’s fourth birthday, the first time he will have been home to help light the candles on the cake.

The fact he is off the road after this Sting tour, and talking of forming his own jazz quartet to make that great leap with original material and a sound he can call his own, is good news for those who have been patient enough to follow his slow progress so far.

"The things I have been playing are great but I am definitely moving on and so Random Abstract is a farewell. I‘m writing more of my own stuff and I'll still do classical things because I haven’t explored that area as much as Wynton,” he says, referring to his own Romances for Saxophone and his brother's four classical releases.

The band he talks of forming has a dream line-up. On piano will be his long-time offsider Kenny Kirkland, who has done the Sting routine as well as appear on Branford and Wynton albums; bassist Bob Hurst and drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts, both Marsalis insiders for many years and who have appeared with both Wynton and himself.

Talk of working in a band takes him back to the 10-month touring band he had with Julian Joseph on piano. Joseph is now at Berklee college in Boston “doing it the way it should be done", says Marsalis, by which he means study and deep involvement in all the playing and academic aspects of jazz.

And that is very much the Marsalis family line: study hard and immerse yourself in the tradition.

“When Wynton was doing those Mozart records he had every book on Mozart so he could interpret the music. That's what Julian is doing now and that’s why I don‘t agree with Courtney Pine," he says preparing to speak about the hot young English sax player who, like the Marsalis brothers, comes on with a keen dress sense and a thick press-kit.

“Courtney believes he can play jazz and live in England without having been to America. I don‘t think it works. Jazz is based on the American heritage seen from a black perspective. Keith Jarrett can do it with Jan Garbarek and make it into a European perspective - and that’s hip. But Keith is the only one in the band with the American perspective. I love it, but it’s not what we do.”

Curiously, his interpretation of Ornette Coleman's Lonely Woman on the new album is done deliberately as Jarrett and the icy Norwegian saxist Garbarek would do it. Lonely Woman, however, is a very old Coleman tune dating from the 50s. Recently Coleman has made more challenging music which he calls "harmolodic”.

Branford - like Wynton, who rages against the "noble savage" attitude towards black musicians as natural but untutored musicians - is unenthusiastic about Coleman‘s harmolodics.

“I don't believe in harmolodics. What happened to Ornette is what happened to a lot of black musicians of African descent in America.

“The African's entire social and cultural tradition is oral, but we're now in a society based on European literary values. People in the literary tradition take you less seriously when you can’t tell them what you’re doing in concrete terms.rand

"Ornette was dismissed as heretical because he couldn't explain it, so he made up that word 'harmolodic'. I just hear that direct lineage from Charlie Parker. It's that simple.”

It's a lineage the Marsalis family are consciously invoking, but not without humour as some suggest. Branford laughs a lot at himself, just as Wynton did in Wellington earlier in the year. He hoots about his nickname, Steeplone, which brother Delfeayo mentions in his aggressively defensive cover notes to Random Abstract.

"When I was with Art Blakey’s band I grew my hair, and it grows in the middle like church steeple, so they called me Steeple and that became Steeplone.”

He laughs again but has to go now. His wife has “just walked in the door with about 25 cases of Coke and beer for this party. I'd better go help."

A nice guy who knows what he's doing. And like his father and brothers he's doing well.

Maybe it just runs in some families.

For a 2009 interview with Branford Marsalis see here.


Share It

Your Comments

post a comment

More from this section   Jazz articles index

Alan Brown: Between the Spaces (Ode)

Alan Brown: Between the Spaces (Ode)

New Zealand keyboard player Alan Brown -- who has previously been in Blue Train and is currently in the Grand Central Band -- is on record saying that rather than writing a jazz album he wanted all... > Read more

Jorgensen, Mikkonen, Ounaskari: Kuara, Psalms and Folk Songs (ECM/Ode)

Jorgensen, Mikkonen, Ounaskari: Kuara, Psalms and Folk Songs (ECM/Ode)

Unfamiliar names, but this trumpet, piano and drum trio deliver an always interesting and often impressive line in meditative mood music which steps lightly between the most refined Miles Davis,... > Read more

Elsewhere at Elsewhere

Jill Scott: The Real Thing, Words and Sounds Vol 3 (Inertia)

Jill Scott: The Real Thing, Words and Sounds Vol 3 (Inertia)

To be honest, this one might take a few goes: initially it seems fragmented, opening with a taut and percussive two minute track, kicks into something soulful driven by a distant rock riff, moves... > Read more

JUDY MOWATT INTERVIEWED (1990): The black queen arises

JUDY MOWATT INTERVIEWED (1990): The black queen arises

Judy Mowatt wears her unofficial title “the queen of reggae" easily. A striking figure of regal bearing, she holds her head high, and, as a member of The Twelve Tribes of Israel,... > Read more