You read that headline correctly: saxophonist Branford Marsalis was born half a century ago today. Some of us will want a minute to absorb that information. Take one if you need it.
Branford has a new album out this week with the Marsalis Family, which is naturally part of his claim to fame. That’s not what I want to talk about here, though. I’d like to talk about the specific achievements of Ellis’ eldest son: as a saxophonist, as a bandleader, and as a public figure besides. (Forgive me, folks, this may get a little personal.)
A lot of people first encountered Branford as part of the brotherly tag team in Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, during the early ‘80s. The portent of that moment, and its neoconservative ripple effect, has been exhaustively covered elsewhere. Let me merely suggest that the intense public scrutiny faced by the Marsalis brothers -- with their complicity, sure -- was far more harmful to Branford than to Wynton, for a few reasons. Consider this 1982 clip, chosen basically at random:
Branford is first at bat, and he carries himself OK. But the staccato pecking begins to feel like a tic, and the solo doesn’t wrap up so much as trail off. Then Wynton takes over. He starts with a transposed echo of Branford’s last phrase, digressing with a few slurs, and then gradually easing into his flow, which is unhurried. Even if he hadn’t kicked into that flamboyant double-time stretch, his would have been by far the more commanding statement. (I doubt Branford would have disputed this even then; watch his face between 2:00 and 2:05, for what seems like a brutal self-assessment.) Quite frankly, Wynton was already a polished product. Branford wasn’t there yet.
Not that he isn’t a clear talent, or that he doesn’t have spectacular chemistry with his brother. If you were paying attention then, you could well remember “Hesitation,” a rhythm-changes tune from Wynton’s self-titled Columbia debut. (I just found a live version by V.S.O.P., which functioned as the band on said debut.) Branford is on tenor there, a better instrument for him than the alto. But he sounds like a kid with a crush on Wayne Shorter -- which, let’s face it, he’s in his early 20s playing with Herbie, Tony and Ron. Who wouldn’t?
Thing is, a certain subset of critics fixed their opinion of him at this time, and he had barely gotten started. A year or two ago, I stumbled across a message board on which one such critic showed his hand. Presented with the idea that a younger tenor and soprano player today could emulate Marsalis, he snarked: what’s there to emulate? As if Branford himself didn’t have a recognizable voice on both instruments, and more than 20 years of recorded evidence to show for it.
Along similar lines: a few years ago the great outré-jazz blog Destination:Out conducted an interesting straw poll of critics and musicians, selectively crowd-sourcing a Best of the 1990s rundown. There was precious little consensus, which is one of the beautiful things about taste. But one factor almost everybody had in common: no trace of Branford. This struck me as bonkers, but that may be because I’m the only one who put one of his albums on the list, the 1990 Columbia release Crazy People Music. *
Here’s where I show my hand, I guess. Crazy People Music was a big record for me. It documented Branford’s working quartet of the early ‘90s, with Kenny Kirkland on piano, Robert Hurst on bass and Jeff “Tain” Watts on drums. There was something deep and slashing about this group, despite some obvious historical borrowings -- actually, in some ways it was because of those borrowings. There was a rootedness even when the group pushed beyond tempo and tonality, which happened fairly often in concert. (If you saw them then, you probably weren’t shocked when Marsalis, in his brief, ill-fated A&R stint at Columbia, signed the David S. Ware Quartet. Same house, different room. All doors and windows open.)
Sometimes folks get confused when the narrative isn’t clear. Crazy People Music was released around the height of Branford’s crossover celebrity, after a few years on and off the road with Sting, and some much-noted noodling with Bruce Hornsby and the Grateful Dead. His Q rating was such that people mostly thought it hip when Jay Leno hired him for the next-generation Tonight Show. (It’s not really a stretch to compare this moment to Fallon hiring The Roots. OK, it’s a little bit of a stretch. But still.)
Marsalis did not really love his three years on the Tonight Show, though he did slip in more jazz than anyone has heard on late-night television in the last 15 years, across all major networks, cumulatively. (Recently Dave Holland told me that he played the show with Joe Henderson and Al Foster in ‘93, when Henderson released So Near, So Far. Great album, btw.) The main problem, he later said, was the ass-kissing. Another problem, I’d guess, was that he felt chagrined to be putting a muzzle on his band.
I first saw that band shortly after they had all settled in Los Angeles. My dad was the producer of a short-lived jazz festival in Honolulu, and he got Marsalis as a headliner. It was a one-off, not part of a tour: the Tonight Show slog was already in full effect, restricting their activities. At the time Branford was being booked mainly with a trio, just Hurst and Watts, and that was the case here -- except that Kirkland really wanted to come to Hawaii. So what we got was the quartet. I sat on the side of the stage, and they pretty much blew my brains out.
My recollection is that they stretched way beyond what the above clip would have you believe (though it’s not a bad clip); by this time the trio, sans Kirkland, was getting into some of the playful elasticity that would crystallize on Bloomington and The Dark Keys. So here was Kirkland, rejoining the matrix, and with something to prove. (He was, by this point, focusing on his solo career. The tune above is the opening track from his self-titled first album.)
There’s much more to say about the Marsalis-Kirkland hookup, and I hope others will pick up that thought in the comments, or in their own corners of the interweb. One of the genuine tragedies in recent jazz history is that Requiem marked the end of that partnership. (The other hookup here, of course, is Marsalis-Watts, obviously.)
But here’s where I stop rhapsodizing about the past for a moment and register my continuing respect for Marsalis as a bandleader. His current group, with Joey Calderazzo, Eric Revis and the young Justin Faulkner, is serious business. Its cohesion is unimpeachable, its chemistry absolute. You don’t want it to follow you home or hang out with your girlfriend. Etc., etc.
And as an improviser, I don’t believe Marsalis has ever sounded more staunchly creative or self-assured. That goes for his own stuff as well as the pop cameos (like this one or this one), which he never just tosses off. I’d almost venture to say that at 50, he’s at the top of his game. But that would close off the possibility of growth -- which would be another critical underestimation, wouldn’t it?
Listening with Branford Marsalis, NY Times, Oct. 2006
Branford Marsalis: Committed, JazzTimes, Nov. 2004
* A while after the D:O survey closed, Ethan Iverson reflected on that Branford snub, and much else, in a thoughtful post at Do the Math. Hear Ethan out here, if you didn’t hear him twice the first time.+
+ That’s another Branford reference, duh.