OffBeat: Melody Is At The Base Of All Music
“I play music, I love playing music,” Tenor and soprano saxophonist Branford Marsalis simply states while talking about his longtime quartet’s latest, impressive release, The Secret Between the Shadow and the Soul.
Perhaps surprisingly, the album, which opens with bassist Eric Revis’ melodically chaotic “Dance of the Evil Toys,” contains only one Marsalis original. Revis and pianist Joey Calderazzo each provide two selections, with two classic jazz tunes rounding out the party.
The leader contests the idea that generosity had anything to do with the format.
“I’m a player, I’m not a musician/composer,” Marsalis declares. “I want to find the best songs I can find. Mathematically, the probability that the best songs would come from one person is dubious. In playing other people’s songs you’re actually stealing parts of what those songs are. It expands how your songs sound. It’s the variety of songs that really makes the record because it allows us to play with a certain kind of sonic variety.”
“Emotional security is more important than generosity,” Marsalis continues, explaining that when [during a live performance] Calderazzo takes a solo, he moves to the back of the stage in order to allow people to focus on the pianist. “In a culture where people hear with their eyes, you have to create an environment for them to notice that he’s playing. Once they do, they realize how great he is.”
“Melody is at the base of all music,” says Marsalis, returning to the topic of Revis’ “Dance of the Evil Toys,” on which the saxophonist goes out on top of the thunder of Justin Faulkner’s drums. Marsalis reflects: “We were just pushing out the edges of the box.”
On Marsalis’ self-penned, poetically titled and beautifully performed “Life Filtering from the Water Flowers,” his tenor seems to call out much like the blowing of a conch shell on a lonely beach. Calderazzo’s magnificent piano lifts the spirit, as do Faulkner’s cymbal splashes and the tone of Marsalis’ horn. The tune is unique in that it holds a sense of empty spaces while being expansive.
“That’s because there’s not a static drum beat establishing a strict time,” Marsalis explains. “In fact there’s no pulse at all. It’s a rubato where the melody dictates the tempo in a way. In some ways, it’s like how African drum music works. It repeats itself—a complicated rhythm, that’s elastic. The song has a round that establishes the tempo.”
With its lively flavor, Keith Jarrett’s classic “Windup” suits this quartet and the album well. The familiarity of the tune’s New Orleans accents in the drums and piano makes it all the more accessible.
Marsalis explains that it wasn’t his idea to bring in the New Orleans element, as he had envisioned making it a funk tune. “When the piano thing started, Justin just went there,” Marsalis says. “He spent two years in New Orleans when he was working on that Buddy Bolden film and he hung out with Herlin [drummer Herlin Riley] and a lot of musicians took him under their wings. He has big ears and learned fast. It’s a happy song regardless of how avant-garde the soloists are or the [written] data is, so there should be the emotional underpinning of fun that permeates the whole thing. In order for it to be fun, it has to have a certain kind of rambunctiousness.”
Marsalis, who has performed with a number of symphony orchestras, says that his classical training and experience has informed how he approaches jazz and vice versa.
“Classical influences permeate the whole new record,” Marsalis offers. “My technique is much better in a different way because I haven’t developed it by playing out of a pattern book. It’s been developed from playing complicated [classical] pieces so it has a different feel to it. Also, when I play classical there’s a lot of places I can place the beat. Having grown up in New Orleans listening to jazz, funk and R&B, I hear it differently and sometimes I’ll put some of the notes where no one expects. Some of the orchestra people like it; some of them hate it,” he adds, laughing.
Branford will be performing with the Marsalis “family band” at Jazz Fest along with his father, pianist Ellis Marsalis, and brothers trumpeter Wynton, trombonist Delfeayo and drummer/vibraphonist Jason Marsalis.
“It’s always fun,” says Marsalis of blowing with his kin. “We tend to gravitate to playing dad’s tunes because it’s a lot easier for us to play his tunes than it is for him to play ours. It’s not supposed to happen the other way around.”
“That’s part of the disconnect that we have in jazz in general. You have young people who don’t know how to play like old people and you can’t expect old people to play young people’s music. I know how to play old people’s music—I’m good because I learned.”
“[Drummer] Bob French threw me off the bandstand once because I couldn’t play the trad shit. And it was the best thing that ever happened because the next time I came back I knew it. He said, ‘Alright, alright, Marsalis, you learned your lesson.’”