Branford Marsalis

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Apr 27

As saxophone colossus Branford Marsalis prepares to play a programme of 20th century works with the City Chamber Orchestra, Josiah Ng sits down with the Grammy award-winner to talk Ornette Coleman and to learn about the music behind the man

There are few musicians who cross genres and have an intimate relationship with myriad musical styles like Branford Marsalis. Born in New Orleans in 1960, Marsalis first began playing at a young age guided by his father, jazz pianist Ellis Marsalis, and supported by his brothers Wynton, Delfeayo and Jason, all jazz giants in and of themselves.

He first cut his teeth with the legendary Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers alongside his brother Wynton, and began touring and performing with classical ensembles in 2008. His career includes collaborations with Dizzie Gillespie, Herbie Hancock, The Grateful Dead and Sting, the formation of hip-hop group Buckshot LeFonque in 1997, and a stint as musical director for The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.   

With work across a spectrum of genres, we attempt to find out what powers the musical spirit behind Branford Marsalis, as well as what listeners can expect when he takes to the stage in Hong Kong. 

You started in New Orleans as a musician. What did you acquire from that heritage?
New Orleans is the home of funk and some of the hit records of the 1950s came out of New Orleans. I grew up playing a lot of different stuff and that’s what I loved the most about being from there. We played everything, so whatever style of music I’m playing at the moment, all of those other experiences come through, even in classical music. Oftentimes, classical players will say it’s really unusual the way I play music, that the notes tend to be a little shorter, and where I place the beat is different from where they would place it. But that’s just culture.

Was it difficult to navigate those differences in classical music?
Not really. The hardest part is just practicing enough and learning enough to play the music well. If you are not afraid of your weaknesses, then you can embrace the system and embrace the way that you have to learn. Very gradually, you start to improve. But if you’re a person who is afraid of failure, then it’s more difficult to learn.

In other interviews you’ve stated that Ornette Coleman’s The Shape of Jazz to Come has been a huge influence on you in the way you approach melody. Can you share more on that?
I was 22 and living in New York as a musician. [Stanley Crouch] encouraged me to listen to the record, and at first I didn’t understand what I was supposed to listen to. But after four months, I gradually began to understand what the music was about. And in the process, it changed the way I approached melody.

What speaks to you the most about Coleman’s playing?
The sound of his instrument. He has a sound that you wouldn’t, at that time, ordinarily associate with a successful jazz sound that works. His ability to play musical ideas without resorting to stock phrases was unique. 

It can be difficult digesting that album, because the structure is so free…  
Yeah, you have to suspend the normal idea. If you’re a person who thinks of jazz in terms of four, eight, sixteen and thirty-two bar phrases, then yes, it’s very problematic. 

So Coleman rarely ever follows any traditional [form]?
But he does! That’s what makes him so extraordinary. He can master the form by removing the piano. We rely on the piano to provide the harmonic information to understand the particular structure of the song. When he removes the piano, the structure goes away for a lot of people.

Do you think he had a specific objective in mind when he made that album? Was he trying to be different or to achieve something through that album?
I’d like to say that he did, but I think the reality is either you’re different or you’re not. When you look at sports, this year Lionel Messi was the footballer of the year, and last year he was the footballer of the year too. There’s not a magic potion that he takes, because if there were, then there would be other people doing it and they would all be Messi. There’s just something in his mind that makes him very unique. And all the other guys work just as hard as he does, but they’re just not as good as him. And that’s life. So Coleman just heard the music in a different way, and we’re the better for it. 

Where does your voice come from as a musician?
My voice is an amalgam of all the voices that I’ve stolen from. It’s much like having a sibling. When my brothers call me, I know which brother it is. And they don’t spend much time working on their voices. They’ve always sounded like that. It’s just because of the way that they’re bred and the experiences that they’ve had. So for me, I always thought it was more important that I work on my vocabulary, rather than spending all this time on creating a sound, which really can’t be created when you think about it.

What do you hope to pass on to today’s young musicians in creating that sound?
That the obsession with personal identity and personal sound is a false road. Learn as much music as you can, and as honestly as you can. The rest of it will take care of itself. 

What does a young musician need the most?
Vocabulary. Sound vocabulary, not harmonic vocabulary. You have a lot of people who can tell you what the chord structures are of every song that they hear. They can also tell you what the alternative changes are for every song. They can pull off all of these complicated things in complex metre, but none of that is what makes a person cry when they hear you play. It is something in the sound that triggers an emotional response. So, culturally, when we spend so much time talking about theoretical application, and not about the reality of sound, it does a disservice to the young musician. And the
old musician.

Branford Marsalis, Wed Apr 27, Hong Kong City Hall Concert Hall, 5 Edinburgh Pl, Central. Tickets: $200-$480;


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