Branford Marsalis is one of the jazz fraternity’s brightest stars and clearest thinkers. The 52- year-old Grammy Award-winning saxophonist will bring a wealth of life experience, as well as scintillating musicianship, with him when he performs at this year’s Red Sea Jazz Festival in Eilat.
Marsalis will appear on August 20 and 21 with his quartet of pianist Joey Calderazzo, bass player Eric Revis and 21-year-old drummer Justin Faulkner.
Marsalis comes from one of the great jazz families. A native of New Orleans, he has several jazzplaying siblings – including muchfeted trumpeter Wynton, drummer Jason and trombonist Delfeayo – and his 78-year-old father, Ellis, is an iconic pianist and educator. As such, Marsalis got an early start to his musical path in life, although he did not feed off an exclusively jazz-oriented sonic diet.
“Back in those days there was FM radio, and they hadn’t yet worked out how to be commercial,” he recalls. “I heard the full version of “The Court of the Crimson King” [from the 1969 debut LP of British prog rock band King Crimson] and Led Zeppelin and all sorts of great rock music on FM radio. The approach to what could be played on the radio back then on FM radio was different.” But jazz was a constant presence in his early years too, primarily through his father’s influence.
As a young artist plying his way through the ranks, Marsalis benefited from the invaluable experience of working with jazz masters from his father’s generation and before. His incipient skills were honed while performing sideman duties with iconic trumpeters Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis and, along with brother Wynton, during a berth in powerhouse drummer Art Blakey’s long-running Jazz Messengers troupe. Blakey not only helped to guide the young reedman’s musical expression, but he also imparted some of the wisdom he accrued during his career at the pinnacle of the jazz pile.
“One thing I learned from Art and those older guys was that jazz used to be music that was liked by musicians and non-musicians alike,” Marsalis recalls, “and that there is a very small sliver of the population that has the capacity to understand and enjoy instrumental music. As young musicians, we were conscious of eroding the relationship between laypeople and the music.”
Blakey, who died in 1991 at 71 and was one of the founding fathers of the modern style of jazz drumming, was once asked to describe jazz in one word. The drummer replied, “Intensity, intensity, intensity – even on the ballads.”
“I completely get what Art meant now, but I didn’t really understand what he meant when I was in my 20s. I just tried to play louder,” says Marsalis, adding that, back then, his earliest musical influences got in the way of fathoming Blakey’s intent. “I thought, ‘How can you be intense on a ballad?’ I was a product of popular culture and, in pop music, dance numbers are loud, and ballads are less loud. It wasn’t until I was in my 30s that I began to understand what being intense on a ballad meant.”
Marsalis says his path to his ballad-intensity enlightenment was aided by his professional work outside the jazz domain and also by staying connected with the street-level mind-set.
“Playing classical music helped me a lot with that. I started to pay attention to the sound of the music, and also certain things started occurring to me when I talked with laypeople. I always enjoy talking to laypeople because, first of all, I am from New Orleans, and that is a very sociable place.
The second thing is that these are the people we are trying to appeal to. So talking to them to get an idea of what they think and feel is very important.”
Staying in tune with what moves members of the public, says Marsalis, is of cardinal importance.
“Some of these people are fans of classical music, and they talk about songs making them cry. In popular music, lyrics set the tone, regardless of what the music sounds like. People love listening to lyrics, and they sort of relate to songs like ‘This will be my theme song for the girl I lost’ or ‘for the girl I got’ and that sort of thing. But when people tell you that some instrumental music makes them cry, it’s a different thing because it’s clear that the emotional response has nothing to do with lyrics. It has something to do with the sound, and the sound acts as an emotional trigger. My question was how do you get to that place?” It took a lot of patience and hard work, but Marsalis eventually made it to the emotive Promised Land.
“When I was in my 30s I got to that place.
I could create a sound, and emotion would be part of that sound,” he says.
That must have been quite an epiphany.
“It was a joyous moment for me,” says Marsalis in describing the happy event, which took place at a gig. “We had just finished playing a song, and two people came up to me and they were crying with joy. I didn’t know what to do with that because it had never happened to me before.”
Marsalis says that had finally gotten a handle on what his elders had been trying to pass on to him and his contemporaries.
“The old jazz guys understood that there are certain things you can do to get the laypeople who are fans of music to like what you play, regardless of the kind of music it is. One thing is it has to have a good beat, whether it is funk, jazz or whatever. It also has to have a very strong melody, and it has to evoke an emotion.”
Marsalis found proof of that pudding very close to home.
“I was playing [iconic jazz pianist Thelonious] Monk’s ‘Well, You Needn’t’ and my daughter, who was about 10 at the time – she’s into pop and that kind of stuff – said she liked the song. When I asked her why she liked it, she said because it made her feel happy. That really surprised me because most people don’t think of Monk, regardless of the fact that he was a genius, as someone who wrote and played happy music. But my daughter got that,” he recounts.
As far as Marsalis is concerned, joie de vivre will eventually always win out.
“There are people who are so pop cultureoriented that you can’t win them over. Jazz has become so insular and has become so overly technical, and the melodies are all based on what the chord structures are, so there is no universality to the melodies anymore. So jazz becomes highly specialized music for highly specialized people. The laypeople who used to like jazz are flummoxed by what they hear. But what Blakey and those guys understood was that the music has to move people. You have to play music that makes people feel good,” he says.
There should be plenty of toe tapping and smiles all around at Marsalis’s Red Sea Jazz Festival gigs.
For more information about the Red Sea Jazz Festival: (08) 634-0253 and www.redseajazzeilat.com.