JAZZ : The Brash, Bright Branford Marsalis

Zan Stewart writes about jazz regularly for The Times.

The ubiquitous Branford Marsalis operates in so many fields--as a jazz tenor saxophonist and composer, as a pop saxman for Sting, contributing to movie soundtracks, even acting in movies--you never know where he'll turn up.

If you were flipping TV channels on a recent evening, you might have seen Marsalis on Roy Firestone's ESPN "SportsLook" interview show, speaking with considerable authority on the New Orleans Saints, and other topics of the sports world.

"Firestone's a jazz buff, and me, I'm like the sports junkie of doom," explains the brash, bright Marsalis, a 30-year-old whose resume also lists husband and father, the following afternoon. He's sitting on a couch in an upstairs dressing room on a Paramount Studios soundstage before appearing on "The Arsenio Hall Show" with his quartet, and enthusiastically offering opinions on a number of subjects.

But mostly Marsalis, whose quartet plays Orange County Performing Arts Center Thursday, Royce Hall Friday and the Wadsworth Theater, next Sunday, talks about jazz. Despite his forays into pop and film, he says in a soft, tender voice that his life "has always been about the music, it was never not about the music."

Jazz has treated Marsalis, a mercurial improviser and astute contemporary composer who has played saxophones with bands led by his brother, Wynton, Art Blakey, Herbie Hancock and Miles Davis, extremely well and he knows it.

"I'm at the top of the quote-unquote jazz world," he says with a straight-forward, no-nonsense look on his face that contrasts with an animated see-saw swaying of his thighs. He's dressed in Reebok bike shorts, a gray Nike T-shirt that blares "High Flyin' 360 Slam Dunk" alongside Spike Lee's face, a pair of scuffed-up Puma basketball shoes and a red baseball cap. "I live a charmed life.

"Jazz is affording me everything else," he continues. "If it wasn't for jazz and the conception of what jazz demands from a musician, there wouldn't have been the movies, there wouldn't have been (the tours with) Sting. I would be like any other pop saxophone player, squeaking out those same worn out King Curtis licks." In addition to his work on two Sting albums and extensive tours, Marsalis has had roles in the movies "Throw Momma From the Train" and "School Daze," and has played on the soundtracks of several Spike Lee movies.

"Jazz has allowed me to be really creative. How can I turn my back on that?"

His current success in jazz is well documented. He is touring steadily with his quartet--Kenny Kirkland, piano, Bob Hurst, bass and Jeff "Tain" Watts, drums--and his two latest albums have placed as high as Number One on the Billboard Jazz charts. The records, both on CBS, are "Crazy People Music" with the quartet, and the soundtrack for Lee's film about a group of young jazz musicians, "Mo' Better Blues," which was released on CBS under Marsalis' name but also features other artists, including singer Cynda Williams.

These are two distinctly different albums, the hornman points out, and they have garnered disparate sales figures.

"The music for 'Mo' Better' is obviously not all jazz even though people say it is," he says. "We simplified it so that the average person can understand it. It has one quasi-jazz ballad, a rap tune and a Les McCann-Eddie Harris type tune that everybody can sing to. The quartet record is hard-core jazz with not a lot of easily recognizable melodies. They both have my name on them. 'Crazy People' has sold 70,000 to date, 'Mo' Better' has sold 270,000. There you have it," he says, opening his palms, indicating the relative fate of a straight-ahead jazz record, even by someone with the name Marsalis.

Then he quickly adds, "Oh, I have the choice. I could be making another kind of music that would make me a lot more money." He did with Sting, but insists that "I legitimately like his music. If more pop musicians were like him, the (scene) would be cool. Even though everyone finds him arrogant and unbearable, I think he's a reasonable person."

But a let's-get-rich scenario holds scant interest for him. "Me, be a millionaire, nah, I don't give a damn," he says, wrapping his hands under thighs. "I don't need a million dollars to be happy. I just want to play music and be with my family and have enough to pay for my house and car."

One of Marsalis' definitions of happiness is a good neighborhood, and he recently moved from Brooklyn, where he lived for nine years, to New Rochelle, a quiet suburb just north of New York City. "I dreaded going home. Hearing gun shots at night, people screaming, trucks rumbling down the street at three in the morning, I don't find any of that romantic."

To keep himself and his family--his wife Teresa and four-year-old son, Reese--comfortable, Marsalis is on the road a lot these days, a situation he both relishes and abhors.

The downside is the time away. "It's safe to say I'm not home a lot, about five days a month," he says with an ironic laugh. "Going on the road is not fun and if I didn't have to, I wouldn't be out here that much. But I really don't have an alternative. If I worked less, I might be able to spend a lot more time with my family but then I couldn't afford my home. So would I rather be in a two bedroom apartment in East Manhattan and spend ten years with Reese and Teresa? No."

Still, he says his relationship with Reese has not suffered by his absences. "I don't have any problems with my son. I speak to him like an adult. My dad was like that. He just laid the law down once and it was over."

The positive side of Marsalis' travels is that he's spending all this time away from home working with his quartet of a year and a half, a band that includes his favorite players and which nurtures his musicality. But before spring, 1989, the saxophonist only teamed up with his cohorts occasionally.

"That's the change," he says, leaning back and locking his hands behind his head. "It's my band, we don't just come in to do a record. Now we're a band and working out things the way bands can. The only record (of the five CBS solo dates) before 'Crazy People Music' that approaches it was 'Random Abstract' (1988-CBS), and that's because that was also a working band (with Kirkland, bassist Delbert Felix and drummer Lewis Nash). The new record's tight, not full of guesswork, like a lot of the others. Still, the record is not as good as the band is live, but isn't that the way it always turns out?"

Just how good is the quartet, which, as heard on "Crazy People Music," embodies exemplary characteristics of contemporary jazz, with the playing going from inventive, hard-boiling swing to free-wheeling essays?

"We're out there now, we're playing the stuff," Marsalis says. Then he pauses, closes his eyes, looking for the right words, finds them, opens his eyes and--shooting a look at a visitor--says, "We're the best band out there," with a slight nervous chuckle.

"We may not be the best musicians, but we're the best band," he continues, firmly committed to this tack. "I can say that now. I wouldn't have said it before, because it wouldn't have been true. I always use baseball analogies. What did they used to say about the Boston Red Sox? Twenty-five players, 25 cabs. That's the difference. We have a working band and we all understand each, complement each other very well."

When the topic turns to his own playing, the slim, dynamic Marsalis' opinions take on a self-effacing toughness. "I don't really like my tone or my technique, though I do like my approach," he says.

He will go so far as to say that after nine years as a professional, he's "becoming a good musician. Becoming ," he emphasizes. "Playing feels good now. I know I'm growing when I go back and listen to my old records. I can listen to them now. A year ago, I couldn't. I was too close to them but now that I don't really play like that, I can listen now.

"I don't know what's different, it just is," he says. "It's like I've said all along, for me to play, for me to get my voice, I need the right personnel. And the only personnel I've met that can make me play my best are the guys I have now."

As to why Marsalis didn't have more of a individual voice at a younger age, he says with a wicked smile, "I was having too much fun. Jazz music is like baseball. It's a very, very, very rare thing when a young, young player walks in and makes an immediate impact. There are all these little things that take years to learn how to do."

There are many colleagues who feel that, contrary to his own perception, Marsalis has had something to say for quite awhile. One is Herbie Hancock, with whom Marsalis has played at various times.

"I have had the fortune of working with some of the greatest saxophonists in the world, and as far as I'm concerned, he's in that line, he's one of the best," Hancock says. "He plays like his personality, with a lot of heart. He's a very intelligent player, and respectful, meaning he has the awareness to be open and respond to what happens in the environment."

Another salute comes from Billy Childs, the Los Angeles-based keyboard ace who has worked with Marsalis' quartet and recently took part in sessions with the saxophonist for the upcoming film, "The Russia House."

"Branford's one of my favorites of our generation," he says. "He has a handle on all styles of saxophone from all jazz periods and its obvious that he's really serious about his instrument. At the same time, he doesn't have a false sense of himself, or get carried away with his ability. And even though he's egotistical, he has a sense of humility that allows him to get even better."

His brother agrees with Childs. "He is getting better," Wynton Marsalis says. "It's just a matter of (his) maintaining the seriousness. But he's definitely dealing with the music."

Even though jazz was all around him as a child, it didn't make much of an impression on young Branford Marsalis.

True, he grew up in a musical city--New Orleans--and in a musical family--his father, Ellis Marsalis, is a fine jazz pianist and a respected educator, and Wynton was a prodigy who was performing with the New Orleans Symphony at 14. But music did not intrigue him.

"I never applied myself when I was younger," Marsalis says. "I mean, I knew stuff, cats would play me records, my Dad played me records, I used to copy solos, like those by Clifford Brown, 'cause Wynton did it, but I was never really diligent."

Jazz became his heartthrob when the saxophonist heard his brother playing trumpet with Art Blakey's band in Boston in 1979. "I said, 'This is it. I'm going to play it,' " he recalls, his face brightening. "And for the next six months I jumped in and started practicing. I even stopped watching TV and buying pop records. I must have bought 200-300 jazz records during that period."

It took a while for Marsalis to get where he somewhat approved of his work. "For many years, even when I was with Wynton's band (1982-83), I had bad technique," he admits. "I still have to work on it. I need to practice, like an hour a day consistently. That's the only way I'll get it done."

Does he practice on the road? "Nah," he says, slowly rubbing his face as if he suddenly remembered how tiring the life of a traveling musician is. "If I had three days off, I'd go to a game or to the movies. I've seen one movie since June, and I love movies. I'd eventually practice but it wouldn't be at the top of my list," he adds, smiling mischievously."

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