"Well-Tempered' Marsalis brings Baroque classics to BU
When most people think of Grammy Award-winning saxophonist and composer Branford Marsalis, the first thing that comes to mind is jazz — and rightly so.
After all, he shares his birthplace with jazz music itself — New Orleans — and he grew up in a talented musical household. His pianist father, Ellis Marsalis Jr., earned critical praise for his modernist take on the distinctly American genre and, as an educator, taught others how to swing. It's no surprise that Branford and brothers Wynton (trumpet), Delfeayo (trombone) and Jason (drums) took up the family business, too.
However, he says, "classical music has always been an interest for me. Performing it is something that has developed over the last 10 years, but I've been listening to it since I was a kid."
What he needed was the opportunity, and that developed organically out of his 2001 album "Creation" with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, which featured works by Ravel, Milhaud and Debussy. Since then, among various jazz projects, he has toured the United States with the Philarmonia Brasileira (performing works by Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos) and performed with the New York Philharmonic.
His latest collaboration is a 20-city tour with the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia dubbed "Marsalis Well-Tempered," which comes to Binghamton University's Anderson Center on Tuesday night. The program focuses on Baroque masterpieces from the 17th and 18th centuries, transcribing oboe or violin solos for saxophone on pieces by Albinoni, Bach, Purcell, Handel, Vivaldi and others.
His latest album is a more singular affair: "In My Solitude" (to be released, coincidentally, on Tuesday by OKey Records) features a recording of a solo performance in San Francisco's Grace Cathedral.
In an interview from Los Angeles last week, Marsalis spoke of the challenges of classical music versus jazz, as well as some of the best advice his dad ever gave to him.
QUESTION: What qualities do classical music and jazz share, and how are they different?
MARSALIS: I think the qualities that all styles of music share are that people like songs with a good beat and a strong melody, regardless of the genre.
In classical music, there's a level of precision that can't be ignored, and in other styles of music the lyrics are sometimes more important, the melody is really catchy, and the lack of virtuosity isn't an impediment. In classical music, you have to be able to play your instrument very well, but you also have to be able to play music very well, and it's hard to combine both of those things.
In that way, it's very similar to jazz, because there are a lot of guys who play their instruments really well but their music thing is lacking. I've never been in a situation where I've had to practice as much and still at the end still have a greater possibility of failure that with classical music.
Q: When you're here at Binghamton University, it's part of a new tour with the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia performing Baroque music. How did that collaboration come about?
MARSALIS: It started out in a conversation with my former agent, Mark Maluso. He broached the idea of me playing soprano (sax) in a Baroque setting. I got excited at the possibility and started buying records, and I flew to London to take some lessons with Stephen Preston, who's a Baroque flautist. I did all of these things even before the tour was confirmed, because if it was going to happen, I wanted to be prepared — and if it didn't happen, I get the reward of learning a new style of music and working on it.
Q: What in particular is it about Baroque music that drew you to it, to learn more about it and perform it?
MARSALIS: The fact that I didn't know anything about it!
Q: So, just wanting to know something new and different?
MARSALIS: Not necessarily different — I just have a need to know. I like knowing things.
Q: How did the pieces get selected for the program?
MARSALIS: They had ideas, I had ideas and we whittled it down to a small list, and then the list got even smaller once we started rehearsing the pieces. Everything is fine in theory until you actually hear it. Then once we started rehearsing, those decisions were kind of made on their own. … We met two Wednesdays ago, we rehearsed on Wednesday, and by the end of the rehearsal on Thursday, the list was done.
Q: Is this a collaboration you hope to record and release as an album?
MARSALIS: It would be nice, but classical records are very expensive to make and it's not something I could say with certainty, but the musical experience and the relationships that I've formed with the musicians is greater than any recording could be — even though I'd love to make one. We'll see what happens.
Q: Do you find that you're learning a lot from working with these Baroque musicians, and they're learning from you?
MARSALIS: I think in a good musical situation that happens across the board, regardless of the style of music. With the exception of one guy, who is the piano forte — the harpsichord player — I don't think these guys are traditionally Baroque musicians. One of those great things about classical musicians in general is that they are very adept at all styles of music that fall within the category of classical music, a lot more so than people in popular music and people in jazz, who continually shave off 30 years from their history so they never existed.
Q: You've performed with everybody from the Grateful Dead to Public Enemy to Miles Davis, not to mention all the collaborations you did as leader of the "Tonight Show" band [from 1992 to 1995]. Are there collaborations or projects that are still on your to-do list?
MARSALIS: None of the things I've done were ever on the list — they just show up. That's the great thing about it. It's as much a surprise to me as to everybody else. I kind of want to keep it that way.
Q: It's good to be surprised!
MARSALIS: Yeah, especially if you're prepared. When you're ill-prepared, surprise isn't good. My father taught me that a long time ago. When I moved to New York, I noticed all the musicians had cards. I told my dad, "I need a hundred bucks to make business cards." He said, "I'll give you a hundred bucks for a saxophone lesson, but I'm not gonna give you a hundred bucks for a card. Your job isn't to network — your job is to prepare." So that's what I did.
Q: It seems to have worked out well for you.
MARSALIS: Yeah, the old man comes up with some good ideas every now and then.
Follow Chris Kocher on Twitter: @PSBChrisKocher.
IF YOU GO
• What: "Marsalis Well-Tempered"
• When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday
• Where: Osterhout Concert Theater, Anderson Center, Binghamton University
• Tickets: $45 ($40 for senior citizens; $22 for students); (607) 777-ARTS or anderson.binghamton.edu