Branford Marsalis' top-flight quartet makes a rare New Orleans appearance at Jazz Fest. Even though Marsalis has spent so much time away from his hometown, he's still in touch with its distinctive features.
"Musicians in New Orleans have a sound, whether they play in brass bands or traditional New Orleans bands or funk bands," Marsalis says. "When I left Louisiana and went to Boston, the thing that struck me is that most musicians don't have that kind of sound. If you listen to — well, Cecil Taylor made records like Unit Structures on Blue Note and that's as avant-garde as it gets and it still had a clearly defined sound. So in a way, the certitude of a sound has been replaced by harmonic certitude and aural vagueness. The music kind of like floats along and it doesn't force the music to commit emotionally."
In leading his current group, featuring Joey Calderazzo (piano), Eric Revis (bass) and Justin Faulkner (drums), Marsalis has pursued his own vision for jazz.
"We always play with a lot of intensity," Marsalis says. "I think the music should be played with intensity, but modern jazz musicians don't play with that intensity at all. When we play, we have an emotional commitment to this — and we enjoy it and we dig it. If you watch videos of guys playing in the '40s and '50s playing this — with the exception of Miles [Davis], which was mostly show business — guys are playing and they're sweating and they're smiling and they're looking at each other, and there is this thing. And you look at modern guys and they don't really look that way. They have real light sounds on their instruments. If you listen to modern jazz with a critical ear, the beat is far less defined. It allows the musicians to play in a less defined kind of way."
Since early in his career, Marsalis has negotiated the artistic and commercial demands of playing professionally. He was one of several jazz musicians that powered Sting's first solo record Dream of the Blue Turtles, he led The Tonight Show band (1992-1995) and he won a Drama Desk Award for the score he penned for a Broadway production of August Wilson's Fences. But a jazz legend pushed him not to divorce jazz from popular appeal.
"When I was playing with Art Blakey, he always talked about how we had to embrace the fact that we are in show business too," Marsalis says. "I was a 20-year-old trying to play jazz. I was like, 'I ain't in no show business,' but now I am 53 and I get it. I'm not in 'Beyonce show business,' but it is still show business. It is essentially the same audience. I have to play songs where they can take the melody and find a way to put it in their pocket. We try to do that. We don't have these songs where the melodies are a bunch of notes that fit the chord changes and can't be sung. That's what I learned from being in New Orleans. New Orleans musicians interact for the most part. ...
"[O]ur music is very festive and very celebratory and kind of in your face, kind of just like New Orleanians are in general. So, it's a thing that you learn from being there. Talking to Idris Muhammad and Ed Blackwell, it's a thing that you learn. It's always ever present in your sensibility."
Although he's won an NEA Jazz Master Award and a Grammy Award, Marsalis still carries a name inextricably linked to New Orleans, and his relation to the city is always subject to scrutiny.
"People say, 'You don't play New Orleans music,'" he says. "Well, actually, these days we play a couple trad tunes. We'll play one of them for an encore or something. Everybody enjoys doing it. I've got this 23-year-old kid playing drums, and he's learning to play like Paul Barbarin."