Classical News

October 17, 2014

10/19: Branford Marsalis plays Baroque sax in Scottsdale

The Republic |
Kerry Lengel

Branford Marsalis is the eldest brother in America's "first family of jazz," but jazz is just one corner of his resume.

The sax man has played with pop artists ranging from Sting to the Grateful Dead to Public Enemy and fused jazz and hip-hop with his own band, Buckshot LeFonque. He served as Jay Leno's bandleader on "The Tonight Show" for three years, recorded the soundtrack for Spike Lee's film "Mo' Better Blues" and composed music for August Wilson's "Fences" on Broadway, earning a Tony Award nomination.

Marsalis' career embodies the famous quote from Duke Ellington that there are only two kinds of music — "good music and the other kind." And for the past decade, Marsalis' focus has been on performance territory that was first staked out by his kid brother, trumpet player Wynton: classical music.

On Sunday, Oct. 19, at the Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts, he will perform Baroque selections by Bach, Telemann and Albinoni with the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia. The concert is dubbed "Marsalis Well Tempered."

Marsalis, who turned 54 in August, spoke by phone about taking a deep dive into the classical repertoire.

Question: What was the challenge of switching to classical music? What did you have to learn, or unlearn?

Answer: I think you need to unlearn things in golf, but not really in music. I didn't have to unlearn anything, but I had to learn a hell of a lot.

I had to reconfigure my embouchure (mouth position) to make it more stable. The control that you have to have to play with orchestras is very different than when you're playing with drum sets, because with drums, there's two volumes, basically, loud and louder. The stamina has to improve to play pieces for 15 and 20 minutes, because there's no piano player coming to spell you when you get tired.

And the rest of it is just the little things you learn by going onstage and making a ton of mistakes. There's no substitute for that. There's no substitute for being on a stage and being overwhelmed and fighting your way through it.

Q: What composers or pieces drew you toward the classical repertoire?

A: I bought my first opera when I was 25, touring with Sting, actually, when there used to be Tower Records everywhere. I laughed, because it was "Turandot" with Pavarotti and Mirella Freni singing, and it was on sale for 30 (British) pounds. And I was like, "How the hell is that a sale? That's like 55 bucks." So I bought that, and it was just like a revelation.

In popular music, you have a basic track and then you have a singer. But suddenly I'm listening to this orchestral score that's so rich, and it's not just one singer, it's multiple singers singing at the same time, and it's all contrapuntal and it's complex, and it all works. I didn't even know how to comprehend it.

So I became a Puccini fanatic. I bought a couple of things by Verdi, but then I stumbled into a guy who said, "You got to listen to German opera. You'll never want to hear the Italian stuff again." Which I highly doubted. But I bought (Richard Strauss') "Salome" and I've never turned back.

Q: In Scottsdale you'll be performing works originally composed for the oboe. How to you translate it for the saxophone?

A: The Baroque oboe has a much reedier sound, warmer sound (than the modern oboe), but not as loud as a saxophone. So I have to make subtle shifts on the fly.

My Baroque instructor is a guy named Stephen Preston, who is in the U.K., and he does a master class, ironically, in the Blue Ridge Mountains in North Carolina. He does a flute retreat every year. So we met in March in Sussex, and we worked on pieces, and I felt like my head was going to explode. And I said, "Man, I've got to process all this information, I'll see you in June." And he suggested that we play a piece together, just saxophone and flute, and a lot of my colleagues were surprised that the balance was so good.

That's the thing when you're really listening to the music as opposed to just playing the notes. When I first started playing classical music, I was never really able to hear myself in context with the orchestra, so I was perpetually too loud.

Q: You've collaborated with so many very different musicians, from Public Enemy to the Grateful Dead. Which ones challenged you the most?

A: What I'm doing now is way more challenging. I think it would be different if I grew up as a jazz guy and then suddenly you're playing with the Dead and none of your jazz s--t works. But because I grew up playing R&B and rock and roll, I already was well-prepared to play in the style. And learning jazz allowed me to play with those guys in a fashion that most guys would not play with them.

You know, most rock-and-roll saxophone players have more of a boisterous sound, and they tend to play a lot in certain spots. But I was able to play with those guys and do the stuff that Wayne Shorter did when he played with Weather Report and when he played with Miles Davis' quintet. He'd just kind of bob and weave.

Q: You first played with the Dead in 1990.

A: I didn't expect the Grateful Dead to become the explosion that it was, because I was not really privy to how massive the Grateful Dead still were in their community. It's like, "Hey, it'll be a couple thousand people and I'm going to have a good time playing the music." And the place (Long Island, N.Y.'s Nassau Coliseum) was sold out and packed. I didn't even know how to respond. It's like, "Wow, really? How did they do that?"

But the approach is the same. I'm there to have fun. I wasn't thinking of the gig as some kind of reflection on me, like I was going to make the music better.

Q: That's refreshingly humble.

A: Various musicians have told me this when I was growing up, but I think my saxophone teacher said it best. When he saw me play the saxophone, he said, "I have to teach you how to get out of the way of the instrument to allow it to do what it's designed to do." And that's the way I like to play music. I like to play music by getting out of its way. And unfortunately in jazz, a lot of people want to get in the way.

The curse of jazz to me is that every musician thinks there's a sequence of notes that are better than the s--t that somebody wrote, and they have the liberty to change it at will. Sometimes that's great. Most times it's a drag, because there's a lack of respect for the pre-existing material.

Q: As the oldest Marsalis brother, did you get first dibs on your instrument? Did you assign your little brothers which they had to play?

A: I didn't assign any instruments, because no brother with love in his heart would ever assign the trombone to his brother. (Delfeayo) chose that instrument on his own.

What really happened is I was playing piano, which was sheer drudgery for me. And then Wynton wanted to play in the band, so my dad (pianist Ellis Marsalis Jr.), who was playing with Al Hirt at the time, got him a trumpet. So when I said I want to be in the band, too, he says, "What instrument do you want to play?" I say, "I want to play the trumpet." And he goes, "No, there won't be two people in this family playing the same instrument. I can get you a clarinet." And I said, "Great!"

Q: Wynton has been described as a jazz purist. Have the two of you had some good arguments about music through the years?

A: We don't really argue about music, because we agree more than we disagree. It's a funny thing. Like, no one would call Justin Timberlake a pop purist, yet as far as I can tell that's all he can do. But if you have a musician who plays jazz for a living and prefers jazz to popular music, the purist label comes out.

The one disagreement we had is that Wynton said, "Why would you leave my band to play Sting's music? Hell, anybody can play that stuff." And I said, "It's a lot more difficult than you think." And there have been various iterations of the band where other saxophone players have tried and a trumpet player has tried, and after that Wynton said, "You know, I've been checking out them other dudes trying to take your place. I think you kinda right. That was kind of a unique thing. Not just anybody could do that gig."

Q: So will there be another generation of Marsalis musicians? Will any of your kids or nephews and nieces be entering the business?

A: No. None of them play.

Q: How did that happen?

A: They didn't grow up in New Orleans like we did. New Orleans is a place where playing an instrument is considered culturally cool. Unless you're in a rock band, playing an instrument is considered culturally uncool everywhere else. You watch those coming-of-age high-school movies, and there's always a guy in the band who has eyeglasses with the tape on it and braces, and they beat up on them.

It was a very different experience in New Orleans. The guys who played in bands in New Orleans were tough SOBs. Girls actually liked the fact that you played an instrument, sometimes more than the guys who played football. So that has an important bearing on the decision to play music. You just can't find people who are interested in playing music anywhere else. And all of our kids didn't grow up in New Orleans, so I just don't think it's going to happen.

'Marsalis Well Tempered'

What: Saxophonist Branford Marsalis performs Baroque compositions by Bach, Telemann and Albinoni with the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia.

When: 7:30 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 19.

Where: Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts, 7380 E. Second St.

Admission: $49-$79.

Details: 480-499-8587,