“Busy” doesn’t begin to describe Branford Marsalis’s hectic life. When the Georgia Straight reaches the versatile saxophonist at home in Raleigh, North Carolina, he’s just returned from a European tour, and he’s already packing his bags for the West Coast jaunt that will bring him to Vancouver next week. Sensibly, he’s timed his visit home to coincide with his wife’s birthday, but when we speak he’s also making a pit stop at his haberdasher’s and studying a “ridiculously difficult” orchestral score by composer Gabriel Prokofiev, which he’ll premiere with Florida’s Naples Philharmonic this March.
“Yeah, I’m multitasking,” Marsalis says with a laugh.
This doesn’t keep him from spending a generous 40 minutes in conversation with us, covering everything from performing John Coltrane’s epochal A Love Supreme (“It’s more like Mahler than it is anything else”) to the perils of being a frequent flyer (he’s at his tailor’s to get a coat repaired that was damaged in transit).
What we walk away with, though, is the feeling that it’s a damned shame no one recorded the dinner-table conversations at the Marsalis home when musical siblings Branford, Wynton, Jason, Delfeayo, and Ellis III were growing up. Family patriarch and piano master Ellis Marsalis, Jr. wasn’t shy about offering opinions, but he didn’t attempt to suppress his kids, either—and his eldest son differs from dad in at least one important respect.
“The old generation always said you need to know the lyrics to understand the songs,” Marsalis says, when asked about interpretation in jazz. “And my argument is ‘Well, hell, that just invalidates 800 years of classical music!’ You know, Bach writes The Goldberg Variations, and it has no emotional content because it has no lyrics? Dad would say ‘Well, no, that’s not what I’m saying!’ And I’d say ‘Well, that is what I’m saying. I’m saying that if a song is really good, you can figure out what it means simply from the melody.’”
This straightforward approach is likely what makes the Branford Marsalis Quartet’s most recent studio recording, 2012’s Four MFs Playin’ Tunes, both formally inventive and emotionally gratifying. As the title rather playfully suggests, Marsalis, pianist Joey Calderazzo, bassist Eric Revis, and drummer Justin Faulkner have an almost frightening level of technical mastery. But they’re also devoted to writing and sourcing music that means something, that isn’t just a container for their virtuosity.
“When you’re playing music, you have to distill things down to one basic narrative,” Marsalis says. “And that’s when complex issues or complex approaches can be understood—not necessarily intellectually understood, but emotionally understood and felt by audiences. So what we’re doing is simple: we’re just playing tunes, and we try to come to a basic agreement as to what the emotional tenor of the song is, and then we try to play that emotion.”
Such clarity is occasionally hard-won. “We’re battlers,” the 55-year-old bandleader says. “We just did a record with [singer] Kurt Elling, and I think the thing that surprised him—I ain’t speaking for him, but just based on his reaction—was how much, when we’re putting a song together, we’re in each other’s grills, arguing. Not necessarily shouting, but arguing for our point, for what we believe is the best thing—although I have the veto power over everybody.”
Listeners can expect more teamwork than tussling when Marsalis and his band come to town, but their concert will not lack for passionate intensity.
The Branford Marsalis Quartet plays the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts on February 13.