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Published: 2003/11/28
by Jesse Markowitz

‘That’s Where The Truth Is’: A Conversation With Branford Marsalis

For the past twenty years, saxophonist Branford Marsalis has been at the forefront of contemporary jazz. First gaining prominence with the young lions of the early 80's, now Branford is a seasoned veteran. With Joey Calderazzo, Eric Revis, and Jeff "Tain" Watts, Branford has assembled one of the most talented jazz collectives of this era. This fall, Branford released a fine new record entitled Romare Bearden Revealed. I had an opportunity to speak with him about this disc and also about some of his collaborations with other artists who appear regularly on this site.

Jesse Markowitz: I’d like to start off by talking about a gig through which many readers of this website, myself included, was introduced to your playing: the Grateful Dead. How does one get to play with the Dead?

Branford Marsalis: A friend of mine's cousin was the publicist for the Grateful Dead. Phil Lesh, who is a big jazz fan, knew that, and Phil asked the publicist to ask my friend to ask me if I wanted to come sit in at Nassau.

JM: Just like that?

BM: That simple.

JM: Did you know their music before then?

BM: Yeah, but I had not really understood the underground phenomenon. I knew the Dead from the early 70's, but I had no idea what a big thing they were.

JM: The Dead recently reformed and is back on the road. If offered, would you do a show or a tour with them?

BM: I always had a lot of fun with the Dead, so I'd love to, as long as it didn't interfere with what I'm doing with my band.

JM: Speaking of sitting in, you played with the Allman Brothers Band this past summer (in Raleigh, 8/10). What was that like?

BM: I have no idea what the songs were, but I had a blast. Derek Trucks is bad. Hell, they all were. In the middle of the last song, Derek played "Resolution" (Movement III of John Coltrane's "A Love Supreme") in the middle of his solo. {Note: Branford sat in on "Dreams" and "Whipping Post"]

JM: How different is your approach when you’re improvising with the Dead, the Allmans, Public Enemy and Sting, from when you’re playing with your quartet?

BM: The approach for me all depends on what the music is. The music forces me to make a different approach. I don't walk in with a determined approach, and I definitely don't decide to change the approach. I just play what it is. I play what my brain tells me the music requires.

JM: Speaking of different approaches, the new record, Romare Bearden Revealed feels like a departure from the other records you have made with this band.

BM: I guess you could say that but it's not the way we see it.

JM: Although this is the first time that your group is focussing on a lot of tunes that were composed in the early years of jazz. How important is it to look back to the people who created this music, like Duke Ellington and Jelly Roll Morton?

BM: I think it's extremely important. It's very difficult to play anything forward thinking when you don't have a firm understanding of what came before you. That's one of the things that makes pop music so transient and short-lived. The people who are performing it have no foundation. They can't sustain a long-term career, the way groups like the Dead can. The Dead knew their history. They had more knowledge than most of the other groups of that era, and that's why they are still making music.

JM: What prompted you to do a tribute record to Romare Bearden?

BM: It wasn't really a tribute to Bearden. The Bearden foundation asked us to make a record to coincide with the National Gallery of Art retrospective on his work; and that was it.

JM: You recently moved away from New York City to Durham, North Carolina. I was wondering why you would move away from the jazz capital of the world.

BM: I was just getting sick of the New York attitude. In the south, a gas station attendant is a gas station attendant. In New York, a gas station attendant is really a failed actor, or a failed businessman, and if he sees that you drive a nice car, he'll charge you double. When I first got here I met a neighbor who had no idea who I was. He said, "So you're a musician, huh? Do you play weddings? Do you play around here?" When I said no, he said, "Well don't worry. You just got here. When you get a few gigs I'll come and see you." After the Tonight Show gig, when I moved back to New York, I met a man who'd never heard of me. He said, "You're a musician? How can you afford to live here?" My son grew up knowing mostly people like the latter. I wanted him to spend some time with the former.

JM: In terms of your various projects what is the status of Buckshot LeFonque?

BM: We were seriously talking about doing some work this summer, but the Bearden thing got in the way. Some time in the next couple months, I'm going to fire up my old midi rig, get some songs out, and get started on it.

JM: I had the great privilege to catch you playing with your family band on the short tour you did early this year, and seeing you play side by side with Wynton, it was striking to my ears, how similar your approaches to jazz are. However, one thing I notice, reading the jazz press, is how you get portrayed as an innovator, and he as a staunch traditionalist. I was wondering what your thoughts are on this matter.

BM: I could care less. I understand why they would say something so ignorant. They're trying to sell magazines. The mistake I used to make as a younger man was believing the notion that the press in general, has a duty to report the truth. With the exception of daily newspapers, the object is to increase sales. Controversy sells. If you are interested in the truth, just listen to the records Wynton and I make. That's where the truth is.

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