Branford Marsalis - "Footsteps"
With "Footsteps of our fathers" Branford Marsalis underlines his dedication towards his musical fathers and idols. He has many musical fathers - and definitely doesn´t want to see them reduced to the four composers featured on his new album: Rollins, Coltrane, Coleman and Lewis. However, the saxophon-player did not just publish this CD, he also recently founded - together with jazz-journalist Bob Blumenthal - his own label "Marsalis Music". There, young and talented musicians shall get the chance not only of their music being recorded and published but also of it being brought into the record-stores.
Carina Prange talked to Branford Marsalis in Hilton-Hotel, Berlin.
Carina: "Lifelong dedication and keenly honed knowledge" - that seems to be a kind of trademark for you. Please explain a little bit, how that looks like in daily life - how much training do you need on the sax, wherefrom comes the inspiration, wherefrom comes your dedication?
Branford: I donīt know. Itīs a nice question! - I donīt practise the saxophon everyday, however I listen to music everyday. Because I think that there is a big difference between learning how to play "the saxophone" and learning how to play "music". Those are two different things. So I think that my dedication has always been to music first and to the medium second - because saxophon ist just a medium, itīs just an instrument.
You still have to practise and develope a certain level of technique. In my later years I have come to appreciate the practice more than when I was younger. But I think that I have always have been dedicated to music, always had a love affair with music. Different people in my life have exposed me to different sounds, music from different regions and different parts of the world. And I have been able to incorporate that into my philosophy, so I have been very fortunate that way.
Carina: "Footsteps of our fathers" is the title of your new album - does that mean strictly staying in the footsteps of the musical fathers or is that about acknowledging their achievements and from there on going an own way?
Branford: Itīs about acknowledging their achievements and from that point going on. But even when you go on, theyīll always be there. I said this earlier - it is like you can read in a book by Rilke. It was in a compilation of letters that he wrote to his students [Letter to Emanuel von Bodman, Aug.17th, 1901, ed.]. About love: Rilke says that the problem with marriage is that the notion that two people can become "one" is impossible. He says, that in order to have a successful marriage, one should say: I am "I" but I am also "we".
And thatīs the way it is with music. "I" am Branford Marsalis, but "I" am also John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins and Modern Jazz Quartett and Louis Armstrong and Miles Davis - I am all of those people. Theyīll will always be a part of me.
I think that, when you are a younger musician, the pressure is to separate yourselves from these people. Because people say: you must be an individual, you have to develope an individual sound! - But the individual sound comes in time. - As a result we have now many, many musicians, who are so afraid of the great musicians that they donīt sound anything like them. And as a result they donīt really sound like anything other than "good" saxophon-players, "good" guitar-players, "good" trumpet-players. But not at all like the jazz-musicians.
Carina: You have been successful in the field of pop-music with Sting, combined jazz and HipHop in your project "Buckshot LeFonque", you are writing scores for films, have recorded an album with classical music, are a well-known producer and in the recent years you have delved very deep into jazz-music again. If you look back: which of all these positions or phases has influenced you most? Is there - in hindsight - something you'd miss if you'd left it out or something you feel you'd better not undertaken?
Branford: Something would be missing if I had left any of them out. I think there is a big difference between the way that I play the saxophone or the way my band functions - and the way that all of my contemporaries bands function. All of those other things that I have done have been very influential on what I am doing now.
It allows our music to seem relevant in 2002 rather than just like an "exercise" and pretending we live in 1965! So I wouldnīt take any of it out. I would practise more when I was younger - thatīs the one thing I would do - I would spend more time practising and less time playing video games in my twenties. - I could have done without that television-show, I did the Tonight-Show for two years. But other than that - musically speaking - I canīt imagine that I would be in the same musical situation that I am in now, if I hadnīt done all of them.
Carina: You are a teacher at the San Francisco State University - the students are often very good in technical aspects, but what about the necessary experiences in life? What is your impression: do they really bring in everything they need to be good musicians?
Branford: Well, at San Francisco-State the musicians are not very good technically, they are terrible. - Yes, in most colleges the students are very good in technical. But of course they donīt have all the experiences that one must have in life. That is why you donīt expect them to. In order they have those experiences they have to live. A 19-year-old... - most 19-year-olds have not lived. So you do the best you can at making them work on certain exercises to prepair for life. - But nothing automatically prepairs you for life...
The argument I would have with my mother is that: my mother felt that she could protect my by telling me what to do all of the time. And she would always say: "Why do you feel the need to reinvent the wheel?" And I used to say: "My wheel hasnīt been invented yet. This is my wheel - let me build my wheel. You have your wheel."
And thatīs the way it is with my students: I never tell them what to do. I always tell them what not to do ...
Carina: "Footsteps of your father" - features four masterpieces from Ornette Coleman, Sonny Rollins , John Coltrane and John Luis. However somewhat changed - "Gigginī" originally is a tune without piano ...
Branford: We didnīt really change the concept of the song very much. The piano-player just took the place of the trumpet-player. So, yes: we used the piano-player - but we didnīt use the piano-player the way it is often used in jazz. He played only with his right hand the entire piece - without all of those cords being banged out on the left hand. This results in a lot more freedom to play the song - and gives it the feeling of being contemporary and modern.
If you really had a piano-player playing the changes that Coleman wrote for the tune, it would sound very, very regular and very, very old. So - and that was very brilliant - figuring out that one of the ways to make your music sound modern, is to just to give it at the left hand... - You could argue: "Fire the piano-player completely." - But I love piano! So I am not gonna fire him. - But on that particular song he doesnīt use his left hand, so it really is almost like not having a piano-player.
Carina: Popularity of a tune, its style, "your own favorites" - how much influence on your choice did they have?
With the rest of the material: The record just came together by itself - we didnīt sit down and draw a plan. Last year we were playing "A Love Supreme" - at the Blue Morning in Paris and I said: "Man, we should record this". And the rest of it just came together. We did a concert in northern Spain and Joe, our piano-player couldnīt make it, because he had to be in Moscow with Michael Brecker.
So we were playing some older trio material. One of the things we played was "Couple of Movements" of the "Freedom Suite" and thatīs when I said, men, we should play the Freedom Suite!
And then I was listening the records and I heard Coleman´s "Gigginī" and I thought it would fit perfectly. The same with "Concord" by John Lewis - I own all CDs of the Modern Jazz Quartet - that song struck me. So, it wasnīt like we had a plan, it just kind of developed on itīs own.
Carina: Wayne Shorter, Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane .... - where do your roots lie the most? Please explain why.
Branford: All of them, I told you already!
Carina: Yes, you told me - but why?
Branford: Because you have to do it - thatīs why. As a musician you have to do it. I didnīt pick one great guy - I picked them all. And not just those, not just Sonny Rollins and Wayne Shorter: you forgot W. March, you forgot Sidney Bechet, you forgot Lester Young, Louis Armstrong, Johnny Hodges. There are all those guys: you learn their solos, because thatīs "IT"!
I personally believe, that - were I ever lucky enough to find the time to be free of my children - I´d travel to Germany and spend a year to learn German. And travel to France and then learn French. Why? It makes my English better!
Because there are certain words in German that donīt really exist in English and words in French that donīt exist elsewhere. So suddenly you have the benefit of all of these points of view that you never had before, if you just learned English. You have new ways of speaking, you have books you can talk about. You have all these things - and new ways to get your point across. You are limited now by only the simplicity of your one language.
I think music is the same way - the more information you gather from all of those people, the larger your vocabulary becomes. So you can walk on stage the way Sonny Rollins does. Sonny Rollins walks on stage and in his mind he thinks: "I can play anything I want."
And very few musicians can say that. Most walk on stage, knowing they have five or six things they know how to do. And they are gonna play the same five or six things over and over again on every song. Thatīs why Sonny Rollins is the "king" and everybody else is a "servant".
A German translation of this interview was first published in Jazz Podium 9/02
Branford Marsalis website: www.branfordmarsalis.com
Marsalis Music website: www.marsalismusic.com
In-Akustik website: www.in-akustik.com
Photos: many thanks to Uwe Kerkau Promotion
CD: Branford Marsalis
-"Footsteps of our Fathers"
in Zusammenarbeit mit MusicLine:
more artist-info / listen to CD at musicline.de