Branford Marsalis: Q&A with a jazz sax master

Branford Marsalis, a Grammy-award winning saxophonist, doesn't like to be fenced in. He's played with jazzy rock bands, the New York Philharmonic and his own experimental funk ensemble, Buckshot LeFonque. Although he's not a staunch traditionalist like his trumpet-playing brother Wynton, he's recently been embracing straight-ahead, acoustic jazz. His recent CD "Four MFs Playin' Tunes" is exactly what the title suggests.

Marsalis and his ensemble will perform a sold-out show at The American Theatre in Hampton on Saturday, Feb. 16. In advance of that gig, we emailed him a set of questions. Here are his responses.

On your latest CD, you took a traditional, no-nonsense approach to recording. Is it difficult to say something new in a straight-ahead jazz setting? 

My focus is not new but good. There are plenty things that are considered new -- they're really not, unless you invent the 13th note in the Western Scale, which has been the same for a thousand years, but I digress -- but many of them are not good. The idea of new is very subjective to most people, yet they tend to discuss it in concrete terms. But you would be hard pressed to find a band that plays the variety of music we play, and sound like we do. 

Will Buckshot LeFonque ever reunite or is that phase of your music life over for good?

For many years, the principals said they didn't want to do it. Now, I think they will. It's a matter of finding time. Making a record is possible. Touring is out of the question.

Your old friend Bruce Hornsby from Williamsburg has been playing mountain dulcimer and accordion lately as well as piano. If he stopped by The American Theatre and wanted to jam, what instrument would you want him to play? 

He essentially plays the piano, last I checked. So, if he comes through, he'll be playing the piano. I hope he makes it.

Wayne Shorter has a new album out and will celebrate his 80th birthday in August. Has his playing been important to you?

Wayne Shorter's playing on the Miles Davis record "Nefertiti" is the reason I started playing jazz in the first place. I know his music and his sound very intimately.

You attended a Frank Foster tribute in Norfolk a few years ago. Do you feel that the jazz tradition he helped to forge is alive and well or endangered?

I don't judge jazz by pop culture standards. If we use that as a standard, then all art is endangered. For those that know, Frank's legacy is alive, and an inspiration to us. For those that don't know, it doesn't make a difference.

I know you've done some teaching at North Carolina Central University in Durham, N.C. Does teaching make you a better musician?

In a way it can, because you are forced to explain your thought process. But, there are many great musicians who struggle at doing that. So being a great musician doesn't necessarily make you a good teacher, nor the other way around. It depends on the person.

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