Several years ago, Branford Marsalis came to a personal and professional crossroads. Perhaps the second best-known jazz musician in the country, after his younger brother, Wynton, Branford held one of the most visible jobs in jazz as director of The Tonight Show band. He had acted in Spike Lee movies, toured and recorded with Sting, written TV jingles and won a Grammy award.
But he wasn’t happy.
The entertainment world is very different from the music world, he explained in a telephone call last week. In music, you have to be a great musician, whereas in entertainment, you have to be happy. And I had personal issues that prevented me from pretending to be happy. I had to go home and do a lot of questioning of myself and my values and my priorities. It wasn’t a rallying cry against populist sensibilities, he is quick to add.
Nevertheless, when he left The Tonight Show in 1995, Marsalis, 40, did turn from the populist mentality and toward the progressive jazz on his most recent CD’s, Requiem and Contemporary Jazz.
With the group from that latest recording Jeff Watts (drums), Joey Calderazzo (piano) and Eric Revis (bass) Marsalis will perform at the Crystal Ballroom on Tuesday.
Contemporary Jazz presenst a more melodic, spacious approach than do his earlier albums, though the compositions are no less challenging and complex. But even at the height of modal excursions, with notes flying like winged furies, the New York resident now maintains a light touch, sure intonation, better balance.
I just finally got good, he replies. On my earlier records I sounded like it was 1960, but my playing now sounds like the year 2000 . At some point, all of a person’s experience and dedication and desire just clicks in. There’s no one thing that happened . How I develop as a person affects how I develop as a musician.
Despite those personal and musical changes, this is still Branford Marsalis. Don’t expect his work even when it contains pop influences — to be more accessible.
The thing about Americans is that they all want to feel smart. They may not want to do the work that is required for them to be smart; they may not even want to be smart. But they want to feel smart. So the minute you put them in an environment where they feel the slightest bit insecure, or the slightest bit dumb, they’re like, Screw you, man, you think you’re better than us.’
Marsalis believes it is his job to be better.
The success or failure of my job, he insists, hinges on finding out how good I can be and talking whatever flak comes with that.
A concert in Ohio showed one reaction to the new and unfamiliar.
A guy in the audience yelled out, Play something we know!’ And the audience applauded. So I said, Well, sir, if you had bought my records, you would know these songs.’ Marsalis laughs. And I said, What do you want to hear?’ Take Five.’ So we played it but when it got to the solo, we played it our way and I’m doing all this crazy stuff, and we were laughing, and they got really offended, like I was making fun of them.
When I was younger it happened all the time. Today, I have a little more empathy, he adds. I’ll say, If you could figure out that song, something’s wrong with me. I’m supposed to be able to play shit you can’t get. If I can’t do that, then what the hell good am I?