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Branford Marsalis interview. Madrid – Vienna, Feb 17th 2012

Branford Marsalis has recently released Songs Of Mirth And Melancholy , a beautiful duo effort with pianist Joey Calderazzo. Arturo Mora had the chance to talk to the saxophonist by phone for more than half an hour. Besides questions related to the new CD, Marsalis spoke about many other issues concerning jazz in a loose, sincere way, never running away from controversy. Here is the unabridged interview.

© Promo 2012

ARTURO MORA: You have just released a duo album with pianist Joey Calderazzo, Songs Of Mirth And Melancholy . Why a duo album now?

BRANFORD MARSALIS: I don't know, it just made sense. Joey and I were playing a concert, the concert was over and I said: “We need to record it,” and we did. There was no other reason to do it, the timing was right, so we did it.

ARTURO MORA: That melancholy may remind us of the current historical moment we're living with the economical crisis going on. Were you inspired by it?

BRANFORD MARSALIS: Specifically no, but I think we are always inspired and affected by the times that we're living. But I doubt that if the times were absolutely great and fantastic much of the record would have changed, because melancholy music is the most difficult thing to do, and it is the thing that has the most emotional impact on the listener, so that is the main reason that I think I gravitated toward the melancholy songs.

ARTURO MORA: The first and last songs in the album are not so melancholic, they have a happier tint. Why? Is there hope beyond melancholy?

BRANFORD MARSALIS: The name of the record came after we recorded it, so there was no theme of melancholy on the record, we just played songs we liked, and when the record was over and I was listening to it to come up with a title I realized that we had two happy songs and a bunch of melancholy songs, so that's why it's Songs Of Mirth And Melancholy . But there wasn't a theme going in.

ARTURO MORA: You used the physical space of the recording room as a tool, moving away from the microphone in some songs. Was it on purpose?

BRANFORD MARSALIS: Yeah. We are a duo, we don't have a drum set, we have more options. The sound of the drums really affects how you record, but in this case it's just Joey and I, and we don't really use much amplification anyway, we use room sound, so... when we play recitals, we don't use microphones. Now that I have an understanding of the recording process for classical records, I wanted this recording to be like a classical record.

ARTURO MORA: Speaking about classical music, and taking into account songs like “Hope” from the last album, how has your knowledge of classical music affected your playing, specially in ballads?

BRANFORD MARSALIS: It hasn't really affected my playing, but it affects how I would shape a song. Now I understand how to shape a solo to create a very dramatic effect toward the end by only playing the high notes at the end of the song, by only playing the fast bits at the end of the song and making sure that the melody at the end is an octave higher than it is at the beginning. Those are all techniques that you use to create dramatic tension. So it's not about my solo has completely changed, but about how to set up a song. It's more like classical music has made me gravitate more towards songs, and the importance of songs and developing songs rather than worrying about my solo. I think of my solo now as a part of a song, not as a separate thing.

ARTURO MORA: Is the use of dynamics part of that classical influence?


ARTURO MORA: When you face a tune for the first time, how do you decide whether using soprano, tenor or alto saxophone?

BRANFORD MARSALIS: The sound of the song, that's all. Joey brings in a song and I can hear the song and when he starts playing it it's clear if it's a soprano song or a tenor song.

ARTURO MORA: Does it have to do with the range of the instrument?

BRANFORD MARSALIS: It has to do with the sound of the instrument, not the range of the instrument, because some of the songs you could play on the tenor, but the sound of the soprano is a better sound for those songs.

ARTURO MORA: What has been the response of the audience to the duo gigs so far?

BRANFORD MARSALIS: Some people like it. You get people who come who have probably never been to a jazz show and they're surprised that they like it. The jazz fans come and they don't like it, because they want it to sound like the quartet. And then you have people that are just lovers of music, and they enjoy it. It's funny, because people who come there expecting not to like it are surprised they enjoyed it, and a lot of times people who come and expect to like it are disappointed, because we're not playing like: [he mimicks a fast be-bop solo], you know, that's what they come for. It's like the jazz audience has become so one-dimensional, and melody is the casualty, so they wanna hear lines and licks, and that's not what we're doing. Well, in two songs, or three, but the rest of the time that's not what we're doing. They don't leave, so it's good.

ARTURO MORA: If they paid their ticket... [laughs]

BRANFORD MARSALIS: Yeah, they paid their ticket, but some people would get up and leave, and they don't leave, so that's good.

© Promo 2012

ARTURO MORA: You recently opened the Ellis Marsalis Center for Music at the Musicians' Village in New Orleans. What can you tell us about it?

BRANFORD MARSALIS: Not a lot, since I don't live there anymore. It is open, it's a great recital hall, definitely the best recital hall in New Orleans, but probably the best recital hall between New Orleans and Atlanta. We have this really nice facility across the street and it's up to them to make something out of it.

ARTURO MORA: What was the main purpose of the Center besides being a recital hall?

BRANFORD MARSALIS: Education for kids. Hiring teachers to teach kids in after school programs. Keep a lot of these kids off of the streets. In New Orleans kids love playing instruments. And one of the things that were really funny was that when we opened up the classes for kids we got complaints from the parents, because they wanted lessons for adults, so now we have lessons for adults [laughs].

ARTURO MORA: Good. Tell me about your recording label, Marsalis Music, and the effect the economical crises has had on it.

BRANFORD MARSALIS: It has really affected me, and it wasn't that good before the economical crisis. People don't usually buy jazz records and you just make them anyway.

ARTURO MORA: Has piracy affected you specially?

BRANFORD MARSALIS: I don't think piracy has affected us very much, I think that in the United States certainly, but I think everywhere else as well, it's very difficult to get people who have the patience and the intellectual capacity to embrace instrumental music. It doesn't sound like the music they already like. If it has a funky beat behind it, they say: “Yeah, OK, it's great!,” but the stuff we're doing has a very different sound, and we continue to do what we do.

ARTURO MORA: Do you think the jazz audience is more specific?

BRANFORD MARSALIS: It doesn't have to be. I think that we have a lot of people who come to our concerts who aren't jazz fans, and they like what we do when we're there, but they don't go out and buy the records. So I just think that because so many jazz musicians play now the music is so very insular, very very smart music, very intellectual, very insular and... people really find it hard to relate to that music, so when you say the word “jazz” they go: “Oh, no!,” so they don't even give the record a chance. ‘Cause some one of them when they hear it they say: “Man, I really like this record, I'm surprised, I didn't expect jazz to sound like that.” And the irony is that seventy years ago jazz sounded exactly like that, and now it doesn't, and everyone says it's better, but I don't see any evidence of that in terms of records sales [laughs].

© Promo 2012

ARTURO MORA: Has the economical crisis affected you as a performing musician?

BRANFORD MARSALIS: No, because, you know, I made a lot of money when I was playing with Sting and I made a lot of money when I was on the television show, on the Jay Leno show, and I left both situations. I made tease with what it meant to be a jazz musician. This is what it is, you play, some years it's good, some years it's not so good. You know, I watch my father [Ellis Marsalis, pianist], he barely made $40,000 a year in the good years, most of the time he was in the low 30's, and he never complained. Never. He was my role model. The last three years we haven't worked a lot, but I don't complain. It gives me an opportunity to practice, it gives me an opportunity to improve, it gives me an opportunity to beat my children more [laughs]. The children don't like it, but I'm kind of into it [laughs].

ARTURO MORA: Maybe it's the anti-crisis solution: beat your children.

BRANFORD MARSALIS: It is, it is, just beat your children, it's great [laughs].

ARTURO MORA: Do you have any piece of advice for an average musician to fight against the crisis?

BRANFORD MARSALIS: It just depends on what the reasons were for playing in the first place. That's really where the question is. When I hear musicians who play jazz complaining about popular musicians, it always makes me wonder why they chose jazz in the first place, because the history shows there's never been any different. If they play jazz because they love playing jazz they understand. Thelonious Monk, according to his tax records, the most money that he ever made in his life in one year was $14,000, so who the hell am I to complain? My life is much better than our mentor's was. So if you love the music go practice, get another job if you have to and just keep playing until it gets better.

It's this idea, you know: “Oh, the crisis is terrible, the government should pay us, the government should do this...” Why? I mean they're not even jazz fans in the government, why should they pay? They should pay you because you breath? That's really not a good reason. See, that's another problem in the US: the government won't pay us, that's the end of the conversation, it doesn't happen, it's over, so we don't have to worry about that. You know, it's always been a funny thing here: you hear jazz musicians complaining about a guy like Kenny G, you know? Kenny does what Kenny does. Why would we complain about him? Because it gives the impression that Kenny G's audience is a jazz audience, and that if Kenny G was gonna start playing the stuff that we play that those people would still stay there, when in fact we know they would not. So, you know, I don't wanna play for an audience full of 40-year old housewives who watch a lot of television. I don't wanna hold a note for five minutes on stage. These things that he does that make him successful, I don't wanna do any of that. I'm happy for him, I'm glad he's successful, but I'm really enjoying what I'm doing and I understand that what I'm doing would not give me that kind of financial success, but it gives me some, and I'm okay with that.

ARTURO MORA: Which is, in your opinion, the way to get people closer to the jazz world?

BRANFORD MARSALIS: I don't even think you can do that. You know, it's one of those things... It's kind of like the question in the United States is how do we make the kids better educated. And they come up with all of these ideas about, you know, more testing and more this and more that... as though kids are just robots and you can just push it into their heads, you know. And the biggest problem in America is that the kids are inundated with commercialism on a 24-hour basis and they are not curious. Good teachers don't make kids curious, the kids have to be curious. I mean, I go to Spain and I meet somebody and they say: “where are you from in the US?,” and I say: “North Carolina,” and they know where it is. But you come to Americans and say: “I'm from Spain” and they say like: “what language do you speak there?” I mean, you know, I've heard it. I can go to America right now and stop people and get a map of New York State and say: “where is New York City?”, and they would say: “Oh, I don't know.” How do you get people to like some music that they don't like? I have no idea and, you know, I don't care either, because I like it and that's all that matters to me.

If you have people who think that the rock band Phish plays jazz because they take solos, okay! I'm not really interested in argument about that. If you have people who believe that the capital of jazz is Oslo, okay, that's fine! I don't really care. If you have people who believe that the Esbjörn Svensson Trio was like the future for jazz, okay! What can you do about that? I'm lucky enough to have the opportunity to make a living doing something I love doing, and I'll keep doing it, and I hope that we can convince people that what we do is good, and if I can I'll just keep doing it till I can't do it anymore.

ARTURO MORA: You've performed with Art Blakey, Clark Terry, Lionel Hampton, Herbie [Hancock], Dizzy [Gillespie], Miles [Davis]... Who made the biggest impact on you?

BRANFORD MARSALIS: Probably Art Blakey, because he was the one who was teaching me how to play jazz. He really would take his time to tell me how stupid I was and to explain to me what it was that I needed to do to improve. Herbie was great. Just being around that kind of genius is amazing.

ARTURO MORA: Had Art Blakey's teaching more to do with the technical side or with other aspects of jazz?

BRANFORD MARSALIS: No, he never really talked about the technical side of jazz at all, it's more about the sound of jazz and understanding the jazz from the bottom up. He always said that our generation had never listened to the traditional music because our music has no nuts, this he called it, and had no density, no weight to it. Because of him and a couple of other guys, Dizzy Gillespie and Benny Golson, I went back and started learning a lot of older music that I did not know.

I remember once he [Art Blakey] wanted me to play a ballad and I couldn't play ballads, and I said: “I don't wanna play a ballad,” and he says: “No, you don't know HOW to play a ballad. That's different than not wanting to.” And he says: “You're going to play it.” We got a Gershwin tune and I changed all of the chords, and he starting saing: “What the fuck is that shit?” [laughs] I said: “I'm trying to make this hip, man, trying to make it current,” and he says: “George Gershwin does not need you to make his song hip. It's already hip, motherfucker, and you don't know how to play it.” [laughs] You know, I laugh about it know, because when I look into these magazines and I hear guys talking about taking old songs and making them hip, I look at these guys and say: “Shit, that used to be me.” [laughs] You cannot play it the way it was written and you don't learn how to play it well. I stayed shocked for about another seven years before I learned how to play ballads well. But he made me understand that it was hard, it was supposed to be hard, and just because it doesn't work for you, you have to keep trying, you just don't quit: keep trying and improve. And you have to keep playing with intensity, even in the slow songs you have to have intensity. He said: “You have no sound on your instrument, just like all your people, everybody from your generation. You guys, you're so close to the damn microphone I'm suprised you don't get electrocuted.” [laughs] So I back away from the microphone and then he plays louder and says [imitating Art Blakey, in a guttural voice]: “I can't hear you!” [laughs] These were great things, things I needed at the time.

ARTURO MORA: That's very different from the current education of jazz at the Berklee School of Music, Dutch schools... What's your point in the current jazz education?

BRANFORD MARSALIS: I think that the biggest problem with jazz education is that many of the teachers are players, but I don't think that the education is horrible because all of the stuff that I'm talking about is on the recordings. And why it is that there you have generations of musicians who say they wanna play jazz but don't listen to the recordings is a mystery to me. I think the big difference is that most kids that play now, the thing that attracts them to jazz is that they have an opportunity to solo, and the solos are more important than what they should be playing, which is the sound of jazz. So, again, even if you have a guy like Art Blakey at the school telling these kids how shitty they sound, they get mad and they say: “We want a new teacher.” I just feel fortunate that I was able to catch those guys and they passed the information on to me right before they died, and I know that, even with my own students, there is an absolute resistance to that information. At the end of the day everybody has to follow their own muse, they have to follow their own instinct: they think they're right, I think I'm right. I know I'm right, but it's a different way of learning and it's very difficult when you have people that are really really smart and not used to using their ears, they wanna rely on their brain, because that's what they do best. When you have kids like in New Orleans, kids that grew up listening to their ears, they're using their ears and they don't use their brains, and when they don't read music they always say that hearing is more important than reading, because hearing is what they do best. But the truth is that yes, hearing is the most important thing, but reading is also necessary, you should learn both.

The mathematical permutations that exist in jazz really have not helped the music in terms of people liking it or appreciating it, because when you're talking about Wagner, or when you're talking about Beethoven or when you're taking about Eros Ramazzotti the principle of music is the same: it's that there's something in the sound of the music that is emotionally relevant to the people who likes it, and if you have to have a music degree to appreciate the music, your music will be unsuccessful. I mean, that's proven everyday, when you think about what people actually like. When you have guys doing concerts, and it's the strangest thing, because I didn't grow up like that, and they come onstage and they talk to the audience like this [in a whispering, transcendental voice]: “Thank you very much, ladies and gentleman, now we're going to do a song for you. Let me introduce Jo Jones on the drums...” [laughs] Talking like that is show business, you know? And Art Blakey was like [in a guttural voice]: “Thank you ladies and gentleman!,” [laughs] and all this he did with jokes and silly stuff, people appreciated that. I'm kind of on a disadvantage, because I don't like to speak in English in Europe unless I'm in England, because it's kind of, in a way, disrespectful to the audience. When I was younger I would speak English and watch them looking at each other and saying: “What's he saying?,” so I don't do it, but I don't get on the microphone and go [back to the whispering voice]: “Thank you very much, now we're gonna play a song that is based on two mathematical permutations, 10-8 and 15-8...” [laughs] Who wants to hear that shit, man? Tell it to your friends in school, but don't even tell people you know that stuff. I tell my students that that's similar to a microwave oven: everybody in the world now uses a microwave oven, everybody knows how to use a microwave oven, but the people don't know how to make a microwave oven. Now if you had to know how to make a microwave oven, or to understand how it works to use it, there would be a lot of people who simply would not use it. And too many times in music you have to understand what the music is to get it, and that's a problem. What classical musicians do is to take very complex things and make them simple for people. In jazz what we tend to do now is take very simple things and make them super-complicated. A guy decides he wants to do a record of Radiohead tunes, or he wants to do Nirvana tunes, and they change all the chords and they change the time signature, so even people who like those songs can't recognize the songs. Who's that record for? People who like jazz don't want to hear Nirvana tunes, and the people who like Nirvana want to hear the tunes they know, they don't want to not recognize the tunes. So you have these guys making records for their colleagues and a couple of guys at the conservatory. It's a strange thing.

© Promo 2012

ARTURO MORA: So in your opinion empathy with the audience is crucial for the success of a musical production.

BRANFORD MARSALIS: Not empathy with the audience. There's an understanding, the audience understand a few things. They only understand a few things, and they're only supposed to understand a few things, because the majority of my audience when I come to Madrid, most of them have jobs, they're out of the music business, and I understand that. They work hard at work, they don't wanna come to be entertained and work hard there too. They can sing along with melodies, they can tap their foot to a song that swings really good and they can be moved by a beautiful ballad, and they can laugh at the guys in the band ‘cause we're very silly and we're telling jokes onstage, and these guys are really having a good time. That's for us to figure out. It's not for us to try to share the chord changes and the meter, they don't give a shit, they don't care. When the drum solo comes up it's very exciting, and people love it, and the song ends and they think it's a great song, ‘cause it brings them energy, that's all they like, that's all they know, that's all they shit know. So if you have a situation where people have to know all these musical things to appreciate the music, the music simply won't be appreciated, and the musicians shouldn't be surprised.

ARTURO MORA: That idea of the people coming out of their jobs to be entertained is exactly what Art Blakey used to say.

BRANFORD MARSALIS: Yeah, it was. I don't believe it to the degree that Art did, because Art used to like bug his eyes out of his head, take his tongue out... I don't believe we have to do that anymore. I believe Art came from a generation where you did have to do that, ‘cause if you look at old videos, every band, all the guys were smiling all the time, it was really show business. But I think that audiences respond to bands that have more natural charisma than bands that don't. I think audiences like the fact that we wear suits. It's part of the gig. I think that we have more impact. Even Joey sees it, as he tends to wear snatched clothes and he did when he first joined the band, like when he used to play with Mike Stern. They used to wear jeans and, you know, it works in pop music. But in pop music people are talking through the entire concert and drinking during the entire concert and smoking weed during the entire concert. But you people are paying money to come into a club to sit down, not talk, buy a couple of drinks and watch the band, and the band comes out to... If the goal is to expand the base of the jazz fan, that means that you're basically playing music for people who're about forty years old and older. Because if the goal is to keep eighteen year old kids, forget it. It's not gonna happen. They don't even have a brain for this kind of music, and the ones that do are the ones who play, but other than that... I mean, my son's twenty-six years old, I watched the process. My son goes to concerts now and he likes the songs and tells me which one he likes: he's twenty-six. When he was eighteen he was just going ‘cause he could take a chick and say: “My dad's onstage.”

So if you have people who think they have a formula to keep these kids to instrumental music, I don't think that's gonna happen, unless you do some music like, you know, like e.s.t. [Esbjörn Svensson Trio] did. That will get them. But doing the stuff we're doing, forget it, it's not gonna happen. If your audience is forty years old and above... People change when they turn forty, a whole lot changes, it just changes: they're married, they have a couple of kids, they go to a concert, they take their wife up for a good dinner and come to a concert to hear some music. They don't want to be surrounded by weed and they don't want to be drinking and partying unless it's a band from their youth. So I think there's a place for jazz, but the musicians have to really wrap their head around the idea that they're entertainment elements to it. And if what you are basically saying is that you are so involved with the music, like I used to say when I was younger, that you could go onstage with a diaper and everybody would like it because it's about the music, it's an incorrect assumption.

ARTURO MORA: Regarding young people, which up and coming young musicians would you recommend?

BRANFORD MARSALIS: You know, every time I do this I forget people... There are some drummers... There's a bass player who's still a young kid, there's a couple of bass players, one's name is... Shit, I knew this was gonna happen. [laughs] Marty Jaffe, Marty's great. There's another kid named Russell Hall, and there are kids that are not even in the jazz scene yet, they're not out there yet. There's another drummer named Marcus Gilmore. I like J.D.Allen on the saxophone, but he's not young and up and coming, but he's not very well known. I also like Steven Riley, I like the way he plays, because he's playing music and he's not so obsessed with the technical delivery of it. There's another kid, a saxophone player I heard named Patrick Partlui. Big guys. There's a guy who lives in New Orleans named Joe Dyson, who's really incredible. The drummer who plays with Miguel Zenón is incredible, Henry Cole, and there's a friend of his who's a bass player, Ricky Rodriguez, I heard them in Puerto Rico, and I was really knocked out by them. There's guys, there're players around.

ARTURO MORA: The typical question to finish: upcoming projects?

BRANFORD MARSALIS: No, we just put out one, we're good [laughs]. We got a tour, I'm playing a lot more classical music now, playing concerts, playing gigs, I'm doing a chamber music festival in August, I'm doing a recital in July, so I have to learn a lot of music for that, I'm playing with an orchestra in Istanbul next week, the band [the Branford Marsalis Quartet] will be playing in Europe in April... We just keep going ahead, man, keep plugged in.

© Text: Arturo Mora Rioja 2012