Branford Marsalis, Music and Words

In this month's All That Jazz, Branford Marsalis talks about his music, career and what Vienna means to him

Branford Marsalis performing at Vienna's Porgy & Bess | Photo: Porgy & Bess

Branford Marsalis and his Quartet at Vienna's Porgy & Bess | Photo: Rainer Rygalyk

men playing saxophone and bass

Branford Marsalis performing at Vienna's Porgy & Bess | Photo: Rainer Rygalyk

Branford Marsalis, along with his flamboyant brother Wynton, together represent the past, present and future of jazz. Over the course of the past quarter-century, each has taken his place, first as a “young lion”, later as the real deal: musicians with passion, power, and a rare commitment to proving the viability of this fundamentally American art form.

In town this month for a two-night stint at Porgy & Bess, the Branford Marsalis Quartet, featuring Marsalis on tenor and soprano saxophones and Joey Calderazzo on piano, played to standing-room-only audiences. Delivering a resounding tribute to a well-chosen stream of intoxicating melodies, this outfit played – without stopping for a breath – for just under two hours. Not a soul there could look away.

Discussing the show with The Vienna Review, Marsalis agreed, “It was a good show, one that we paid for the next day.” The measure of the professional, really of the man, is that despite the wear and tear, he delighted in that next day on the road, playing in another town. Leveraging his exhaustion, he and his mates were determined to up the ante, learning the next night to play “with the same intensity and passion with very little sleep,” according to Marsalis.

In conversation before the show, Marsalis described his love of his life as a musician, and indeed for the music itself. In a time when success in music is “filtered through the pop music paradigm,” Marsalis expressed his amazement, and gratitude, for the audience. That is, he remains less than enthralled by the “art” of recording, seeing recordings literally, even ironically, as simply “records” of past achievements. Echoing Sonny Rollins, what matters to Branford Marsalis is the playing. Maybe it’s his Protestant work ethic, but the exercise of working, day in and day out, year in and year out, with inspired colleagues in front of an audience sustaining him, is what drives Marsalis.

“I’ve had people come up to me, with pity in their voices, talking gravely about how I’m not selling (records) in the millions, and living the pop life,” he explained, “but I know, whether they do or not, there’s no way I deserve – much less want – anyone’s pity!”

Branford Marsalis and his Quartet at Vienna's Porgy & Bess | Photo: Rainer Rygalyk

Fascinating too, is Marsalis’ grasp of music as a medium, and his sense of intellectual appreciation for song. While he professes a disarming lukewarm interest in words and music – dismissing claims of fellow sax players, who suggest their “lyricism” stems largely from their conscious vocalisation of a song’s lyrics – he clearly is on the side of jazz tunes one can hum on the way home from the club. This is in sharp contrast to the neo-Third Stream experimentalists he hears tinkering with rag-tag stacks of sound. Without melody, as Ellington suggested about “that swing”, it “don’t mean a thing” to Branford Marsalis.

“Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder blew me away when I first heard them,” he told me. “These are powerful, abundantly clear, emotional statements,” he said. “I don’t speak German, and I [still] knew what Mahler was talking about a century ago when he played Vienna.” Perhaps from our Western tradition of reason – logic based on texts both secular and religious – we tend to make, according to Marsalis, an artificial distinction between words and music. “A good song, to me, must first work through my feelings, my emotions,” Marsalis said. “A great song engages your intellect by the power of its music, sound with words in support.”

Branford Marsalis knows he has a debt to the past, noting his influences include Rollins, Lester Young, Warne Marsh, Stan Getz, and many others. But he is neither of the past, nor sentimental about it. “Jazz has never been popular, and it never will be, whatever we might believe or hope,” he said. “It has a life of its own and for me, for my fellow musicians, it’s all about the music.”

Enough said.

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