[JPL] Branford Marsalis: Chasing a runaway 'Trane

Steve Schwartz steve_schwartz at wgbh.org
Sat Mar 5 06:41:36 EST 2005

>From The Independent (UK):

Branford Marsalis: Chasing a runaway 'Trane

The saxophonist Branford Marsalis tells Martin Longley why he has taken on
John Coltrane's visionary masterpiece A Love Supreme

04 March 2005

Branford Marsalis is sitting in the coffee space of New York's Sterling
Sound recording studios. His hands are flat on the table, his mind focused,
his mouth primed to set off on a speech about the current state of music,
jazz in particular, and art in general. His brother Wynton may have the
reputation for controversy, but the saxophonist is equally opinionated, with
a markedly more modernist approach to the music.

Even though he's the eldest of pianist Ellis Marsalis's offspring, Branford
appears youthful, preferring Hip-Hop casual to studiously be-suited. He is
about to sit in on a mastering session for saxophonist Miguel Zenon's new
album, to be released on his own Marsalis Music imprint.

Branford was signed to Columbia for nearly two decades before realising the
best survival technique was to found his own outlet. Late last year, he
released the evocative Eternal, an album devoted to ballads. Many such
albums are mellow and bland, but Eternal's bittersweet mix of desolation and
ecstasy, the music swirling with a sense of barely-concealed tension,
captures the secret of romantic wistfulness.

Branford's latest release is a DVD and CD of his quartet's storming live
performance of A Love Supreme, recorded at Amsterdam's Bimhuis Club. Filmed
on the second night of their residency, the cameras prowl around in a murk
of tasteful lighting, at the service of the music rather than distracting
with quick MTV-style edits. Included on the DVD is a lengthy conversation
between Branford and multi-instrumentalist Alice Coltrane, John's widow and

"It all happened by accident," Branford recalls. "We were in Paris, and I
got into this debate with a writer there. He was saying, what do you think
of European jazz? He went into this long-winded thing about America not
being an inspiration any more. He was basically saying that jazz can be
whatever we want it to be. I said, look man, I'd just like to hear them play
something like A Love Supreme. And he says, I haven't heard you play A Love
Supreme. I said, well, you comin' to the concert tonight? All right. You'll
hear it. So, I tell the guys in the band, we're playing A Love Supreme
tonight, and they're, like, cool. We played it before. Nuthin' special. But
this time it just clicked, as a group. It was magical. We were exhausted at
the end of it. I bit through my lip and didn't realise until the next day.
There was dried blood all over the mouthpiece. One of the ways that jazz
musicians have gone wrong is that we no longer address the physical reality
of playing as a group. It was great to be in a moment where we had
transcended that physical threshold to the point that I could bite through
my lip, and not even realise it because of the zone that we were in. That
was when I made the decision that we should record it."

They performed the work a couple of times at New York's Village Vanguard.
"It's not the kind of piece you play gratuitously. It's too difficult!
That's why people avoid it. Everything else you play pales into

"But I don't buy into the sacrosanct bullshit," he sneers, pondering why few
players dare to approach this work. "It's not a coincidence to me that the
majority of the Coltrane that is embraced is the stuff from the Atlantic
period, because it's the music that can be easily codified. I don't buy it,
I think they're just afraid of the piece. That's why we went after it. I
didn't know whether we had the stuff to play it, but you only live once. I'm
not going to be a punk and hide in a closet. 'Well, I'm only interested in
my own music.' All these catchphrases that you hear, they're just metaphors
for fear of being exposed as a person who is not thorough enough in
research, not thorough enough in an understanding of history."

Marsalis now has a steely-eyed view of his place in the jazz firmament. He
looks back on youthful folly, rejecting where necessary, applauding himself
where he thinks it's deserved. "We did a version of A Love Supreme in 1991.
It was a failure. I didn't know enough about the blues.

"Coltrane grew up in Hamlet, North Carolina, an immensely segregated small
town. In a place like that, you can assume that every thing that has to do
with black America can be found in a one-mile strip: the houses, the juke
joints, the church. It's hot as bejeezus, so the windows are open. As a kid,
if you play on the street you can't help but hear whatever's going on. This
is before clubs were sent to zoned districts. There was a bar right next to
our house. They'd swing the doors open and the majority of the people are
outside on the street, and the music is coming out of the door... You'd hear
the church music, the blues, the gospel shit, and it just became a part of
you. We're now in a period where people call themselves jazz musicians and
they don't have any relationship to that experience. We can't go back in
time, though. That's not what I'm suggesting."

The usual Marsalis album gameplan is to mix standards and original
compositions, with writing duties divided up between the leader, pianist
Joey Calderazzo, bassist Eric Revis and drummer Jeff 'Tain' Watts. This is a
stable line-up that enjoys an intuitive rapport, built up over many years.

Later that night, Marsalis began another week at the Village Vanguard. The
quartet launched straight into a ferociously intense opening statement, with
Branford's extended solo tackling every intimate corner of the cramped

Marsalis is amused when some audience members have a problem dealing with
the fact that the quartet laugh a lot when they're performing. "I have no
compunction to give them a visual aid. Some people are put off that we act
like a bunch of asses up there. Some people are frustrated, because they're
coming to hear African-American classical music."

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