[JPL] Walking a Beat With an Officer of the Jazz Police ...NYTimes

r durfee rdurfee2003 at yahoo.com
Mon Oct 9 18:30:45 EDT 2006

October 6, 2006
Listening With Branford Marsalis
Walking a Beat With an Officer of the Jazz Police 

IN late August Hurricane Ernesto was drawing close to
North Carolina. Among other things, this meant that
Branford Marsalis wasn’t going to play golf. Around 11
in the morning, he came to the door of his tract
mansion in his T-shirt, shorts and socks. He was
alone, and preoccupied by the knowledge that his wife
and two younger children were stuck in an airport in
Sweden, their flight delayed because of a maintenance

A saxophone was out, and the television was on. He had
been practicing while watching a DVD of “The Seige,”
with Denzel Washington and Bruce Willis. Five years
ago he moved to this house, next to one of the better
golf courses in North Carolina. “I’m in a place now
where all I can focus on is bettering myself,” he
said. “There’s no distractions. I listen to music all
day.” It seemed like a good time to visit and listen
along with him. 

Mr. Marsalis, 46, the saxophonist and bandleader, is
the eldest of the six Marsalis brothers; three others
are also in jazz: Wynton, the trumpeter and major domo
of Jazz at Lincoln Center; Delfeayo, the trombonist
and record producer; and Jason, the drummer. He lived
in New Rochelle, N.Y., and Brooklyn before North
Carolina, but moved south to remove his family,
particularly his 20-year old son, Reese, from what he
describes as a particularly East Coast sense of

A side benefit was that he could concentrate on his
own work. It has been a generative period. He
established his own record label (Marsalis Music), and
he and his band have an artist-in-residency job at
North Carolina Central University, a historically
black college in Durham. He and his wife, Nicole, now
also have two daughters: Peyton, 5, and Thaïs, 18

Mr. Marsalis has also given up the idea of being part
of the pop-culture mainstream, which had been a goal
when he entered Berklee College of Music in 1981,
wanting to be a producer after the models of Quincy
Jones or George Martin. It was part of his agenda
again when he joined Sting’s band for two years in the
mid-1980’s, and again when he led the band on “The
Tonight Show With Jay Leno” from 1992 to 1995. 

It is not easy for him to leave this point, about
dropping out of the rat race, unexamined. Mr. Marsalis
is an opinionated sort. Twenty years ago those
opinions could be loud and grating; now there is a
weathered and empathetic feeling about them, but they
still arrive at a rate of about one per sentence. 

They tend to be standards-of-quality judgments. Like
the rest of his family, when he finds jazz, or any
music, not reflecting enough study and seriousness, he
doesn’t mince words. These can feel like attacks on
fragile targets, and there is a jazz-police reputation
to the whole family that many of a more pluralist
mind-set can never forgive. But where Wynton, in his
arts-administrator role with Jazz at Lincoln Center,
is concerned with getting America to care about jazz
at all, Branford is naturally more idiosyncratic; his
opinions are more mordant. He represents nobody but

At the end of the day, we were listening to something
I had taken just for fun, an unissued live Coltrane
recording from 1961. He shook his head. “This is
unbelievable, man. But my friends would never
understand this. And they shouldn’t. It’s for us to
understand and enjoy and love, and the hell with the
rest of it. The whole self-aggrandizing stance might
get you some attention, but in my mind I’ve checked
out on that whole thing. I moved here. I’m done. I
just want to play. I don’t want to be in magazines.”

HIS own band, the Branford Marsalis Quartet, is in an
exciting phase. In the late 1990’s, getting its
bearings after the death of its previous pianist,
Kenny Kirkland, it had the potential to be one of the
best small groups in jazz; more recently it has truly
become that. Formed in 1997, its lineup has stayed
intact for the last seven years, with the pianist Joey
Calderazzo, the bassist Eric Revis and the drummer
Jeff (Tain) Watts. 

Its new record, “Braggtown,” accommodates hurtling,
physical Coltrane-ish music, slow and mournful ballads
and a version of “O Solitude,” a song written by the
17th-century English composer Henry Purcell. 

Mr. Marsalis is fascinated by slow music — he recently
recorded an album of crawling-tempo ballads called
“Eternal” — and also by classical music, and seems to
be working toward a way that a jazz quartet can use
classical material more flexibly. 

“I’m listening to a lot of lieder right now,” he said,
“because I like the idea that you can write songs with
a certain amount of emotional content, especially when
you don’t know what the lyrics say. From happy to sad
to wistful to melancholy.” 

The first CD Mr. Marsalis chose to listen to was a
collection of performances from Bing Crosby’s radio
show by Crosby and Louis Armstrong, made between 1949
and 1951. 

One of Mr. Marsalis’s tough-love opinions is that jazz
has precisely the level of exposure it deserves.
“Musicians are always talking about, ‘Why isn’t jazz
popular,’ ” he said. “But musicians today”— and he was
talking specifically about jazz musicians — “are
completely devoid of charisma. People never really
liked the music in the first place. So now you have
musicians who are proficient at playing instruments,
and people sit there, and it’s just boring to them —
because they’re trying to see something, or feel it.” 

We listened to a very short version of “Up a Lazy
River,” from March 16, 1949, in which Armstrong sings,
scatting and trading phrases with Jack Teagarden, and
then plays a little trumpet. 

Mr. Marsalis admired Armstrong’s chromatic run of
notes at the end, but he wanted to talk about simpler
things. “One of the things I like about all the swing
music is the songs that they picked didn’t rely on
heavy amounts of harmony,” he said. “What they relied
on more was a really strong melodic sense, and a
certain level of charisma to pull the song off. Even
in parts where Louis isn’t doing anything particularly
comedic, people start laughing, because of his body
language and the way he gets the notes out.”

He played the recording again and focused on
Armstrong’s vocal solo, which starts after the first
eight bars. “What he was singing: that’s a solo,” he
said. “If I play that as a solo, people say, ‘That’s
bad, where’d you get that from?’ Check it out.” Mr.
Marsalis sang along to a mellow, linear, melodic part
of the improvisation. “Sounds like Lester Young,” he
said. He sang along to the more exaggerated,
note-smearing part that immediately follows. “If you
can play that, man, people will go nuts,” he added. 

He found another Armstrong-Teagarden track, “Rockin’
Chair,” a studio recording from 1947, with a slow,
comfortable tempo. “See,” he continued, talking about
Armstrong, “he hears the sound, he hears the things
that go against the groove. He can express the song in
a conversational way. A lot of other guys, at the time
and even now, it’s like they’re giving a speech. It’s
prepared. With him, it’s just very conversational.” 

“And,” he added, “that tempo no longer exists in jazz.
Find it. Who plays it? Nobody. That’s the tempo that
pulls your drawers down. That’s what Art Blakey used
to say.”

Mr. Marsalis talked about playing in an R&B cover band
called the Creators as a teenager in New Orleans. “The
job is to get people’s booties wiggling,” he
concluded, “and get them to dance. If it becomes too
clinical, they won’t.” 

The Creators learned this through misguided ambition.
This band prided itself on hip segues: an Earth, Wind
and Fire song, into the “Star Trek” theme as arranged
by Eumir Deodato, into a highly chromatic version of K
C and the Sunshine Band’s “Boogie Man.” None of it
moved the crowd, though. 

“People would just sit there, bored as hell,” he said.
So the band got a new bass player and a new drummer.
“And then,” he explained, “we still did all that
frilly stuff on the top, but it was grooving, so
people were cool with it. People don’t mind the frilly
stuff — they don’t even pay attention to it. That’s
more for our personal edification.” 

He put on a jazz analogue of the same story. It was
“How Can You Face Me?,” by Fats Waller, from 1934.
It’s pretty busy on the upper levels. Clarinet, guitar
and trumpet are adding lots of ornament, and Waller,
singing and playing piano, pours personality all over
it. But the rhythm section stays steady; the bass
notes (played by Billy Taylor) and the drum grooves
(played by Harry Dial) are plump with volume and

He made a steady, bouncing motion with his hand,
following the rhythm section. “That’s where the dance
beat comes in. It’s all about that. The other people
just start launching off, but they just sit there and
keep the beat.” After Waller’s opening piano solo, he
starts to bust out over the other lukewarm soloists,
yelling at the song’s imaginary object: “Yass! Don’t
you talk back back to me! Sheddup!” 

Mr. Marsalis beamed and started giggling at Waller’s
outbursts. “As long as it’s swinging, you can do that.
I just love the fact that he’s so exuberant, and so

Mr. Marsalis next wanted to talk about what he calls
authenticity. He means the baseline truths of jazz,
the groove and the pulse and the aesthetic slang,
rather than the pyrotechnics. He puts on Bessie
Smith’s “Need a Little Sugar in My Bowl,” from 1931,
where Smith is accompanied by only the pianist
Clarence Williams. She sings with concentration and
force, almost simply. It’s a sex song, and it is not
coy: Bessie Smith is confronting you. Only once does
she put a real ornament on a note, and it’s like a
little bomb going off. “Whoo! Watch out, girl!” Mr.
Marsalis whooped. 

When he plays that song for students, he explained,
their response is usually summed up as, “Where’s the
music?” He picked up an alto saxophone and played the
melody line very straight, with no swing. “No
authenticity,” he said. “I tell them, man, you gotta
growl, you gotta bend the notes.” He played it again
with slurs and buzzes. “The way most musicians are
taught now relies on what they see, first, and what
they hear, second,” Mr. Marsalis said. “They hear but
they don’t hear.”

HIS obsession with lieder really has to do with the
strength of the melodies. Another point in his long
list of What’s Wrong With Jazz Today is that young
players tilt toward the standards with the most chord
changes, which he feels often have the worst melodies.

Recently a musician was arguing with him, contending
that modern jazz had bigger fish to fry than melody.
“So I said, ‘Modern music can’t have melody?’ ” he
recounted. “I said, ‘Let me play you this.’ ”

Mr. Marsalis put on Stravinsky’s “Ebony Concerto,”
written in 1945, as performed by the Ensemble
Intercontemporain, conducted by Pierre Boulez. It does
have melody — not jazz-ballad melody, but strong
melody anyway. More, it has one great idea after
another for arrangement and instrumentation: acoustic
guitar used beautifully, giant tonal shifts, passages
with muted trumpet and flutes that presage Gil Evans’s
work 15 years later. 

After spending a few minutes pinpointing parts of
classical works that jazz composers stole from, Mr.
Marsalis described how part of one of his new pieces
on “Braggtown” — a ballad called “Fate” — is borrowed
from “Götterdämmerung.” Mr. Marsalis said that during
the days of working on Mr. Leno’s show he used to come
home and listen to it from beginning to end, lying on
the floor.

The motif he borrowed — usually called the “fate”
motif — comes right after the opera’s overture; we
listened to the version played by the Berlin
Philharmonic and conducted by Herbert von Karajan. It
is a slow, tense series of contrary-motion chords,
played by woodwinds going up and brass going down. In
Mr. Marsalis’s tune, it becomes the first four notes
of the opening theme; he plays it again right before
Mr. Calderazzo’s piano solo. 

“Straight-up Wagner, dude,” he confessed. 

The Branford Marsalis Quartet plays through this
weekend at the Jazz Standard, 116 East 27th Street,
Manhattan;(212) 576-2232.

October 6, 2006
Then and Now 
Recordings listened to for this article:

LOUIS ARMSTRONG “Up a Lazy River,” from “Fun With Bing
& Louis” (Jasmine, 1997; $15.98).

LOUIS ARMSTRONG “Rockin’ Chair,” from “The Complete
RCA Victor Recordings,” four CD’s, (BMG/RCA, reissue,
2001; $63.98). 

FATS WALLER “How Can You Face Me Now,” from “If You
Got to Ask, You Ain’t Got It!,” three CD’s
(Bluebird/Legacy, 2006, $35).

BESSIE SMITH “Need a Little Sugar in My Bowl,” from
“The Essential Bessie Smith” two CD’s, (Sony Legacy,
1997; reissue, 2006, $24.98).

IGOR STRAVINSKY “Ebony Concerto,” performed by Daniel
Barenboim, Pinchas Zukerman and Ensemble
Intercontemporain, conducted by Pierre Boulez
(Deutsche Grammophon, 1995; $14.99). 

RICHARD WAGNER “Götterdämmerung,” conducted by Herbert
von Karajan; four CD’s (Deutsche Grammophon, 1998,

Recordings by Branford Marsalis recommended by Ben

$2.24 ). Mostly a pianoless-trio record, and an
accomplished one — if not as wild as what the trio
would later play — with the bassist Robert Hurst and
the miraculous drummer Jeff Watts. Wynton Marsalis
comes in for a memorable tangle with the pair on one
track, “Cain and Abel.”

‘REQUIEM’ (Columbia, 1999; $9.98). The last recording
of the old quartet, with the pianist Kenny Kirkland,
who had been an important part of Mr. Marsalis’s
circle since the early 1980’s. At the time it seemed
almost the apotheosis of the jazz mainstream,
sure-footed and confident in its shifts of dynamics
and tempo.

‘ETERNAL’ (Marsalis Music, 2004; $17.98). With the new
quartet getting up to speed, these were results of Mr.
Marsalis’s attraction to slow songs. Here he recalls
Ben Webster as much as Coltrane, and performs a
serious, sensual exploration of ballad tempos, many
slower than normally heard in jazz. 

‘BRAGGTOWN’ (Marsalis Music, 2006; $17.98). A tighter,
more elastic quartet, with an unmistakable new
cohesion and an extreme range of expression, from
serene (“O Solitude”) to nearly violent (“Black Elk

Roy Durfee
P.O. Box 40219
Albuquerque, New Mexico 87196-0219
rdurfee2003 at yahoo.com

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