Jazz Today: Branford Marsalis on Doing His Own Thing

Saxophonist Branford Marsalis and his veteran quartet's The Secret Between the Shadow and the Soul demonstrates his commitment to communicating emotions to listeners but without compromise to his kind of jazz.

The Secret Between the Shadow and the Soul
Branford Marsalis Quartet
Sony Masterworks
1 Mar 2019

Branford Marsalis performs and speaks with a combination of fire and tenderness, with idealism and irreverence. He can be a jester and a professor, an elder and—still today, after more than 35 years in the spotlight—a provocateur.

His quartet, featuring Eric Revis on bass, drummer Justin Faulkner, and pianist Joey Calderazzo, has become an institution. Revis and Calderazzo have been in the band for 22 and 20 years each, with newcomer Faulkner joining a decade ago. The result is a jazz quartet with more than just rapport—they have a common approach to sound, expressing emotion collectively and freely, but driven by a commitment to playing each composition with integrity.

Their new album, The Secret Between the Shadow and the Soul (hereafter, The Secret) follows a couple of years during which the band recorded and played in support of the masterful singer Kurt Elling. The Secret is purely instrumental, but it can as easily be called a recording that sings. PopMatters talks with Marsalis about the band, the new recording, and his ideas about songs, sound, and more.

Jazz Isn’t About Proving How Smart You Are

There’s a contradiction at the heart of The Secret and at the heart of Marsalis’s art. He and his quartet are no pop band—they play uncompromising jazz that is undiluted and incredibly wide-ranging. Yet at the same time, Marsalis is keenly interested in communicating with his audience in an emotional way. Marsalis has recorded funk (and famously in the ;80s, recorded and toured with Sting and played live dates with The Grateful Dead), but he also sees jazz as, when played properly, a matter of speaking to an audience’s heart.

“Imagine,” he says, “if you went to buy a microwave at Best Buy and the guy says, ‘I’ll sell you the microwave but first you have to tell me 100 words or less about the concept of microwave technology.’ You’d say, ‘Fuck you, man,’ and then go to Sears and buy it. This is what so many musicians do. They spend all their time working on systems and equations and then get pissed off that an audience isn’t ‘smart enough’ to deal with your smartness. That’s not the audience’s problem—it’s yours. You have to give them something they can feel.”

And so one of Joey Calderazzo’s extraordinarily lyrical tunes, “Cianna”, delivers a graceful melody and a dancing Latin rhythm. The theme unfurls as a set of gentle but slightly ornate melodic curls, many offset by logical melodic lines beneath the saxophone played by the piano. Marsalis’s improvisation leaves plenty of room between phrases, basking in the song’s swaying groove. Calderazzo is equally gentle at first, floating lines up above the surf, which allows Faulkner to play an almost equal role in the melody of the performance, coloring with cymbals and tom rolls. It’s mainstream jazz that doles out a full seven-minutes of pleasure.

“Ever since Charlie Parker died in the 1950s,” Marsalis says, “modern jazz has been a constant conversation with musicians to other musicians at the expense of everybody else. I don’t agree with that. I don’t think the music should be dumbed down—we play music where the chord structure is not easy to listen to, but there’s a joy in what we do and people can feel that.”


Music as “Sound” Rather Than Just Structure or Notes

The key to the quartet’s creativity, says Marsalis, is an interest and focus on “sound” rather than data and technique for its own sake. “The hardest thing to do in instrumental music is to create a sound or a series of sounds that correspond to emotion. They don’t talk about this in music school. They talk about structure—how to negotiate a structure, how to outline chord changes. That’s a way to play, but it’s a very rudimentary way to play. But we try to change the colors as we play.”

Marsalis uses as an example his one original tune on The Secret, “Life Filtering from the Water Flowers”, a ballad that opens up to dramatic individual expression. Calderazzo begins his improvisation unaccompanied and then picks up the enthusiasm of the rhythm section as he goes. “That changes the color,” Marsalis explains. “Joey can change the color because he has such a dynamic sound. So, because he has such a large sound on the instrument, when he plays soft it’s a different experience.” Marsalis improvises more aggressively on tenor saxophone, but now it’s Calderazzo who cuts out at first—another change in color. The leader develops a set of winding, circular patterns that are matched with enthusiastic brio by Faulkner’s drums. Slowly, the solo builds to a kind of grandeur—the melodic phrases varying and rising as the piano becomes more robust in accompaniment. The band seems to be reaching for a climax but then pulls back just a small part of the melody before melting away to quiet.

“There’s this automatic drone you hear with some musicians who are playing a tune but, in their minds, they’re having lunch somewhere—they’re just playing,” Marsalis says, “In my band, we are all listening to one another and reacting and trying to find creative ways to play as a group.”

They’re also listening to lots of recorded music as a way of getting to a deeper understanding of “sound”. “In modern music we spend too much time talking about data and we don’t trust our ears enough. But in this band we listen to music all the time. We listen for sound, not for information. The Western scale is one of the most limited systems in the history of systems—it’s all based on twelve notes. There’s only so much you can do with twelve notes. I like to tell my students to get them to understand this, that Mozart and Jimi Hendrix play from the same system. If it was all about the notes then Mozart could play like Hendrix and Hendrix could play like Mozart. But it’s not. It’s about sound. You have to learn sound.”

Shared Creativity and Practiced Intuition

The longevity of this quartet, Marsalis explains, gives them knowledge about how each band member plays—which in turn allows them to play as a group and do more than just play the right notes. He prefers a sports analogy.

“It’s like when a sports team joins together, lots of big time players at one time, and then they start losing. Players have to learn each other’s tendencies—where they like the ball, when they like ball, how they run the plays, which angle to use—and that’s what you learn from playing with people for a long time.

“Jazz works best when the musicians have an intuition. Intuition comes from cognition, not the other way around. You get used to another musician’s sound, you get used to their tendencies. With a lot of modern players. they don’t really like jazz that much, but they do like soloing. Those kind of people are really hard to play with because they don’t listen. They’re attitude is, ‘I’ll be asleep in the corner and when it’s my time to solo, ring the bell and I’ll come out blazing.'”

Indeed, what you hear on The Secret is a great wash of intuition. Calderazzo’s ballad feature “Conversation Among the Ruins” exemplifies this approach. Marsalis whispers with his soprano saxophone on the theme, playing in close lockstep with piano on a gently surging scale, then tracing a toggling part of the written melody. Calderazzo’s solo is played over gorgeous brushwork from Faulkner as the pianist’s left hand evokes a strumming kind of impressionism. Calderazzo’s right hand plays with a classical sense of balance and design. The saxophone solo goes in a different direction, but the band reacts instinctively. Marsalis plays more blues intervals, and Calderazzo reacts by paring back his chorded accompaniment, allowing the horn more space to direct the melodic flow. Revis’s bass becomes more prominent, sitting low on repeated note and pedal points, and by the end Marsalis is playing less too, ringing single notes, waiting, trying again, then finding openings for longer lines that sing like a human voice.

Marsalis has a variety of stories at the ready to explain what it means for his band to be intuitively connected. “Last night,” he recalls, “we’d been in San Francisco it had rained for four days straight. Talking to the audience, I said, ‘I’m sick of this rain and I need some sun.’ And then Joey played “Here Comes the Sun”—and that song became the theme in everything we played all night. In the middle of a solo, “Here Comes the Sun” would show up in very cryptic ways that aren’t obvious to everyone. We played different parts of the song. Then we would start laughing, and people are like, What’s so funny? But you’d see two or three people in the audience who got what we were doing.


A Variety of Voices to Master

A signature part of this quartet is how different the players are from one another, even as they blend. Marsalis likes to stress the degree to which the players do deep listening to the music that matters most to each of them. Faulkner, when he entered the band a decade ago, was actually ten albums to learn by each of his new partners.

“We all have larger sonic vocabularies than we did seven years ago. Justin had a limited jazz vocabulary when he first joined the band. He had learn 30 albums when he joined the band, ten from each of us. Revis’s band is an avant-garde band. Joey has a piano trio and he wants a different pulse on things. My thing is more early music and classical music now—I gave him some Shostakovich and some Jelly Roll Morton and some Louis Armstrong. Now we’re in a place where everyone in the band has a very large sound vocabulary, so we can apply a bunch of sounds to songs and settings.

“If we’re playing an avant-garde piece, we don’t have three avant-garde licks that work in any setting. We understand the sound that makes that music what it is from the the recordings of people who do it well. The same with classical music or jazz. With Joey it’s rock ‘n’ roll, with me it’s R&B. And Justin, he played in church and plays R&B. Certain songs elicit certain sounds.”

These different voices are clear both in composition and performance. The Calderazzo songs discussed above are remarkably lyrical. Eric Revis, as Marsalis notes, has a thornier sensibility. “Dance of the Evil Toys” draws directly from his penchant for more adventurous sounds. Faulkner lays down a military groove, which sets up a melody for Marsalis and Calderazzo that is a set of staccato runs and run-backs. The band collapses into a set of thrill, sloppy hits before pulling back to very precise jabs and slurs … and then swing. Over the elegant groove, however, Marsalis plays very freely and melodically, no slave to a set of chord changes. The piano solo is given a completely different feeling, with Calderazzo playing a single lick in repetition that keeps morphing, returning, changing, and then growing more complex as a two-handed conversation, but all without entirely abandoning its simple start. “Nilaste” is a quirky ballad, within which tempo surges and relaxes before giving way to a bass-driven groove over which the musicians improvise while keeping a close link to composed elements.

It was Revis, Marsalis reports, who suggested that the band cover Andrew Hill’s “Snake Hip Waltz”, a Monk-ish theme that lopes and drunkenly stumbles, a happy thing, an off-kilter thing. “Revis said we should play this. And I said, ‘Oh, shit, it’s so happy. And we need more happy music. And we should play a song in three and not play it like it’s in three—just play it.” Marsalis’s soprano sax lines wriggle and snake in double or quadruple time. To say that the man uses the blues here is an understatement. He plays it like a slide guitar, but one that can precisely go to any note even as he slides so many notes into place.

The other familiar jazz song here is Keith Jarrett’s “The Windup”, with its busy, vigorous rhythmic figure on piano based on a gospel feeling. The melody for Marsalis’s tenor is a memorable thriller, with satisfying stops jolting your ears before the whole band pulls back to a quieter section before launching again. Again, Calderazzo begins his solo all along before picking up the band and—hooo!—swinging the tune uptempo, with Revis driving everything to a spring from below.

Calderazzo’s playing here comes from many sources, Marsalis notes. “He listens to a lot of Richie Bierach. Also Keith and Chick Corea. But he took all that information and made it sound happy. When we made this record, it was about getting the feeling and emotion of each song, and “The Windup” is a happy song.” Marsalis’s solo begins from a different place, more obtuse and free, highly vocalized and grounded in folk-styled blues.

“For me it was just Ornette Coleman, the whole thing. Because it’s clear that when Keith wrote it, he got it from Ornette. Ornette’s shit is based on loose time, and Keith took it and put it in specific time.” Marsalis explains that Faulker put a “Crescent City beat” on the tune, “something that he would never have known had he not lived in New Orleans. So you have all these things that are happening because we are listening to sound.”

“I’m Out Here, Doing My Thing”

Taken as a whole, The Secret Between the Shadow and the Soul is a satisfying jazz album for the reason Marsalis hopes: it isn’t simple jazz or even particularly traditional jazz, but it tells stories with a sense of feeling. “This is probably one of the first records in a while where all the songs we do don’t go “ding, ding, ding, ding,” Marsalis said, imitating the sound of a traditional jazz ride cymbal pattern. “But that discipline, the thing you learn from playing those songs, it’s implicit in all of the stuff we’re doing. Which is why we’re able to play stuff that doesn’t play as swing but it has that pulse that makes the music exciting.”

Marsalis has an uneasy sense of the competing importance of playing for the audience versus playing for himself.

On the one hand, his populist aesthetic is clear, and it leans toward blues playing and away from a trend he sees in modern jazz toward a kind of snobbishness. “I’m an old R-and-B guy,” he says. “Songs are songs, not ‘vehicles for improvisation. Of the things that make jazz great, improvisation is probably in third or fourth place. What makes jazz great to me, is the consistent use of the flatted third and the flatted seventh in a melodic context which comes from church music and the swing beat. And modern players tend to do neither.

“I understand that most of the time we’re playing, we’re playing for people who might have an interest in music but aren’t jazz fans. To the majority who go to concerts, all jazz sounds the same … because it does sound the same. The reason it sounds the same is because the musicians are mainly interested in their solos.”

But at the same time, Marsalis knows that his music is “not an easy listen”. He’s looking for a tricky compromise.

“When we were getting the music together for the Kurt Elling record (Upward Spiral, 2018), Kurt wanted to do songs that would be really great for him but I told him we weren’t really melodic. Kurt asked me, ‘Do you play for the people or for yourself?’ I said, ‘Well, I play for the people because the people are paying money to check us out. I can pleasure myself at home for free. But the notion that people should pay $35 to watch me pleasure myself at their expense is ridiculous.”

And that’s a funny line, but Marsalis is an artist, not a pop star. He admits, “I’m not concerned with the audience, really. Sure, I play for myself. And I also play for the guys in the band. And we love playing the music we play.” But the music the Bradford Marsalis Quartet plays can be both true to itself and emotionally appealing to listeners.

“Because of my experience playing popular music as a kid, having to keep a band in business in a city full of bands, I realized intuitively at an early age that people respond to a sound and emotion. They don’t care what key it’s in or what meter it’s in. So if the strength of your music is the ability to play a complex chord structure, uh … okay. But that’s the road to nowhere. When you play it, it has to sound like something that’s familiar to people. When you listen to Stravinsky’s music, well it’s hard to play, but when you hear it, it doesn’t sound hard.

“There’s an inherent populism in music,” Marsalis asserts. “it’s a stretch to get people to come listen to music that’s outside what they’re used to. How populist do you want to be?

“When Alanis Morissette came out with Jagged Little Pill (1995) people thought it was an angry record. Some of the lyrics were angry, but the music was very accessible, happy pop. Peter Gabriel writes melancholy music and melancholy lyrics and that’s why there’s a limited audience that can deal with that. He did that one pop record with “Sledgehammer” (So, 1986) and I thought, bravo to him, he’s a master songwriter and conceptualist. But mostly people can’t take that trip. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds? There are a limited number of people who can take that trip. But it’s still great.

“But every musician makes a decision. They decide, I need to put my message out there. I’m not trying to be a pop star, and I need to do my thing. And,” Branford Marsalis finally concludes, “I agree with them.

“I’m out here doing my thing.”