It’s not often one gets to chat seriously about music with a top-flight musician who is making his comments in between shots on the golf course. Unusual to say the least. Such was the case recently with Branford Marsalis.
Wait. Marsalis? One of the hard-liners from the 1980s? You’re fucking with me.
Nope. The conversation took place via telephone as Marsalis, wearing an earphone, strode Treyburn Country Club in Durham, NC, where he lives. I offered to postpone. He handled it all in stride.
“We’re breaking the mold. You can (write), ‘Wait a minute. He hit his ball 20 yards to the left, and then cursed.’ And go on from there.”
[Photo: Branford and Joey Calderazzo at Newport Jazz Fest, 2009. © R.J. DeLuke]
The conversation covered many bases, disrupted on occasion by the swing of his own club, or by ball-busting comments to the rest of the foursome, which included the pianist of the Branford Marsalis Quartet, Joey Calderazzo. It was the basis for a story at the All About Jazz website. Marsalis, now 52, has mellowed, even by his own admission. Things in the music business that he can’t control roll off his back. Even if they still irk him. That said, he’s as forthright as ever on topics that come up and his knife is still sharp when he looks at the world of jazz and what he sees as its blemishes. His take is different and merits some attention.
As a youngster, he was one of the Young Lions. He and his brother Wynton, tried to play it all. They flexed their chops and burned ahead. Young exuberance. It’s different now. There’s a mellowness. Not in his playing. His playing over the years is more of a distillation. Putting that aggression through a filter and finding the better stuff on the other side. He still forges ahead as one of the finer saxophonists of his generation. But he tries not to get too much ahead of the audience, he says. He claims too many people in jazz music are doing that nowadays.
There‘s a lot of cussing going on. Part of golf. Good natured stuff. “I curse before I swing. I do more cursing than swinging,” I reveal about my own golf game. “No,” he tries to correct, “It’s swing. Then curse. It’s not curse, then swing. It’s swing, then curse.” I never did have that down pat.
His 2012 CD, Four MFs Playin’ Tunes (Marsalis Music) is as advertised, the band, spurred on by relatively new drummer Justin Faulkner (“Tain” Watts had been with Branford forever), weaves and bobs. They burn and play beautiful ballads. The leader says the group tries to kill it each night. Might not quite grab it each time. But they’re reaching. And they’re mindful that the stuff doesn’t rocket past the audience.
“I’m not disavowing the complexity. The shit we play is complex. Listen to the record. But at the end of the day, when you hear people talking about why jazz is not popular, they have a million reasons. Radio, they’re playing pop music. They blame all this bullshit. People who listen to music listen to really simple things. The song has to have a good beat and the song has to have a melody they can relate to. When you listen to modern jazz, they have neither. They have guys who don’t know how to play swing, who are playing ostinato grooves that aren’t funky at all. So they lose the groove part. Then the melodies aren’t singable.”
“At the end of the day, yeah, there’s all this complex shit that needs to go on. Much like the thing that supposedly got me in trouble for saying about Cecil Taylor -- It ain’t the audience’s job to grasp that. That’s our job. We’re supposed to learn all that shit … you learn all this shit, then you communicate it to people in a way they can understand it.”
His swing and strike of the ball is audible. “Uh-oh. Uh-oh.“ Ball’s in the air. “Cut please. Cut for me. No? … Fuck.” Part of the game. “OK,” he resigns himself as he heads toward the frustrating little white orb which wasn‘t quite where it was supposed to go.
“When you listen to a jazz radio station, it’s a style of music where all the shit sounds the same. Which is kind of like the pop music is, ironically. Except (in jazz) the solos might be more complex … They have that same formulated nature. I am not interested in participating in shit like that. I’m just not. Guys do a song. They have a bass vamp they start the song with. Eight bars of vamp, then the melody comes in. The trumpet player plays, the saxophone player plays, the piano player plays. The bass player will probably play. The drummer takes a solo then the head comes out. Then when the song is over, the song ends twice.
“Even with Blakey’s band they would just go, [he hums an ending … da-da DET, dah dah dah, dah-da deh-da] and the song ends. Now they do [repeats: da-da DET, dah dah dah, dah-da deh-da, then he hums a faster tempo--a mish mash where the line is blurred and tails off in a different direction]. Then they hit a chord--Bang. So the song has two endings. It’s just little things. You already played a long-ass solo. Do you really need to solo some more at the end of the song? The structure of the song and the function of the song and the purpose of the song is just pushed aside for this ideology of: Listen to how great I sound. I don’t buy it.”
He’s honest. But not upset. Hell, he’s enjoying his day on the links.
“It used to bother me. Joey and I often talk and complain about shit we hear. We complain about it, but talking about them is not going to make us better. If their goal is to get better, then they’ll hear the shit we’re talking about. If they don’t hear it, OK. They hear it or they don’t.”
“I’m doing a fucking interview,” he says to the group … “It’s a 5. I double clicked, otherwise it wouldn’t have been. I’m going to leave y’all to it. I’m going to go over here so Joey doesn’t have an excuse to piss and moan,” he busts, laughing.
“After 11 years of playing with Branford, I’m still nervous to play with him,” Calderazzo said to me about a year ago. I’m comfortable, but … and I had the same thing with Mike (Brecker). Mike kept you on the top of your game … He played every performance like it was going to be his last. Branford’s attitude is not that. It’s a funny thing. My take on it is: no matter where it is, it’s just another performance. The two of them are polar opposites, but it works for each one of them. It very interesting. I’ve learned from both of them. Branford is very nonchalant” Also, said the pianist, “Branford is undoubtedly my best friend.”
Says Marsalis between golf shots, “Somebody asked me about European jazz and I used to have this long explanation. It was such a dishonest conversation and I don’t speak the language. But then I find out (European) writers were writing that when it was brought up, I began to get agitated and angry. Which isn’t true. Sometimes when I talk I get agitated, but it’s as I get excited. So now, I just say, ‘That shit’s great.’ As long as I don’t sound like that, they are awesome. That‘s how I feel about a lot of this shit. If people think it’s great--there’s no evidence of record sales or ticket sales that the shit is great--but if that’s what they think is great, more power to them.
“I’m hittin’ ‘em OK. I’m playing bogey golf so far. I had two good shots, one bad shot and two putts.”
“I just did a gig, a small gig, in Atlanta, for a golf tournament. The guy’s a friend of mine and good golfer. Said he wanted me to play a tune. I said, ‘I don’t play by myself.’ He said he would get a bunch of local guys. So I meet this guy. At the beginning of it, Mac Davis played. He wrote songs for Elvis. He wrote ‘In the Ghetto’ and all this stuff. So Mac’s playing and the people are screaming and hollering. So already I get it. The audience is not a jazz audience. I’m keenly aware of that. In my thinking, this should inform the decision about the song you play.
“So it’s our turn to play, and this guy plays ‘Well You Needn’t’ as fast as a motherfucker. It takes the audience about 45 seconds to start talking (among themselves). How can you be that unaware of the surroundings? We should have played ‘Cheek to Cheek’ and they would have liked it. And all of Thelonious Monk’s songs, the slower they are the better they sound. … That’s what I mean when I say there’s a disengaged understanding of the showbiz elements of music.
“I want to play jazz. I have an informed opinion on it now. I’m not 22 anymore. I have a sense of what works and what doesn’t work. There’s slight adjustments you can make and you can fuck around and accidentally have a 50-year career. Or you can choose not to do that.”
Dig or not, there’s a commitment there. A design. His band is always busy. Road tested. Ready to wail. Agree or disagree--Fine either way. Marsalis is one to stand up and be counted. The chips will fall where they may, and for he and the quartet, they’ve fallen in the right spot.
My only advice? Head down. Follow through … Cuss away.