While saxophonist Branford Marsalis takes his work seriously, he isn't afraid to take risks, both through his sensitive and adventurous improvisations, and on a career path that has taken him from The Tonight Show and mainstream success to founding an independent label and shucking jazz conventions. Marsalis became a household name in the nineties when he fronted Jay Leno's band, a job he left, dissatisfied, after three years (a short stint compared to the tenure of his predecessor, Doc Severinsen, who held the job for a quarter of a century). He also hosted a show on National Public Radio during that period, while continuing to record for Columbia Records. After working up 12 records for Columbia during the '80s and 19, including two recordings by Buckshot LaFonque, his R&B- and funk-inflected side group, in the '90s, Marsalis left the label in 2002 to establish his own imprint, Marsalis Music.
Through his label, Marsalis realized a goal to document under-recorded New Orleans musicians, releasing albums by drummer Bob French and clarinetist Alvin Batiste in his Marsalis Music Honors Series. That's not the only thing he's ever done for New Orleans musicians. Following Hurricane Katrina, Marsalis and Harry Connick, Jr. developed the idea for a New Orleans community housing elderly and displaced musicians. It was eventually realized by Habitat for Humanity as Musicians' Village. Marsalis has also signed international performers to his label, with Chilean vocalist Claudia Acuna (appearing Wednesday at the Jazz Kitchen) being a recent and exceptional find.
The ten-year-old Branford Marsalis Quartet has evolved into one of the most cohesive groups in jazz. As Marsalis notes in the liner notes to his latest CD Metamorphosen, he's grown more comfortable with himself by playing only to his group: "As I have gotten older, I've gotten better about not thinking, 'I've got to prove something because people will be listening.' I only have to prove something to the other three gentlemen." Those other three gentlemen are pianist Joey Calderazzo, bassist Eric Revis and drummer Jeff "Tain" Watts.
When I called Marsalis on the Friday before his Jazz Fest appearance, I asked him, among other things, about how he defines himself and his group. As he put it to me: "I came to jazz as basically a converted R&B saxophonist. I came to jazz through listening to audio recordings and using music for research."
NUVO: Like Duke Ellington, is your band an extension of your music personality?
Marsalis: I guess in a way it is. We don't rehearse and I guess I am one of the few guys that operates like that, so in a way it is. When Joey first joined the band, he fired off, "What do you mean we don't rehearse?" As I started listening to jazz records, I started hearing more and more mistakes. The mistakes led me to the conclusion that the feeling of the moment and the feeling of the music was more important than complete instrumental accuracy. Then I started to notice how far we, as musicians, had strayed [towards] this obsession with technical mastery. There are guys doing twenty takes of one song and solos being overdubbed.
NUVO: What is the emphasis of your record label? I'm impressed by the fact that you've released work by guys like Michael White, Bob French and Michael Carvin that wouldn't have otherwise gotten out there.
Marsalis: It was something we did because it was a fair thing. They haven't sold a lot of records. We try to address things we think are wrong. I try to keep the cost down and let musicians do what they do.
NUVO: It's been eight years since you, your dad and brothers have recorded together. Is there any chance that the family will record together again?
Marsalis: We did a concert in Washington, D.C. this summer. If the music is good enough, it might become a record.
NUVO: Do you feel that jazz has gotten a bad rap in the mainstream media?
Marsalis: There was a period when jazz was the popular music, when swing was the popular music of the time. The idea that there were legions of people who identified with the artist is simply untrue. I think what you have now is what you had back then. People are simply in love with the song, more so than with the artist.
NUVO: What do you think is going to happen to jazz in this country?
Marsalis: I am not really concerned - somebody always shows up. It's just about finding musicians who are really talented. What's often left in jazz are these musicians [who] are more technocratic. If you can find people who are really musically talented, who bump into jazz and choose to play it, then that's pretty much where the music will go.
Closing out our interview, I laughed at Marsalis's take on that old saw that you can't play the blues unless you lived it. "That's a bunch of horse crap," he told me. "Classic composers wrote about death, yet they were still alive. [But there's] some of the jazz guys talking all of this foolishness, 'well Bird was great because he shot up,' all of that dumb shit."
The Branford Marsalis Quartet will perform at the Indy Jazz Fest, Saturday, Sept. 26 at 9:45 p.m. on the Michelob Jazz Stage.