The New Old Sound

Branford Marsalis' new disc is a Requiem by and for a heavyweight

Branford Marsalis calls exactly at the appointed time, 3 p.m., despite a schedule that should not allow for such promptness. He is on a cellular phone, sitting on the front stoop of his 13-year-old son Reese's piano school on White Plains Post Road in Eastchester, New York. Branford does not actually go inside the school during Reese's lessons; that would put too much pressure on the boy, not to mention the teacher. One can only imagine how the instructor might feel with one of the world's greatest saxophone players leaning over his shoulder as he teaches the horn blower's son how to traverse the ivories--the awe, the intimidation.

The piano lessons were Branford's idea; so, too, was Reese's participation in sports. As far as Marsalis is concerned, sports and music "make people better, more receptive to shit." Reese might not have wanted them--hell, Branford shrugs, the kid never even practices at either the piano or baseball--but his son was not going to grow up melting his brain over a video game. Yet Branford doesn't cajole the kid when he strikes out or clumsily dances all over the wrong notes. He wants his boy to succeed--or fail--on his own. Parents, says the 38-year-old father, "get too bent out of shape" when their kids screw up. It's the mistakes that make them stronger, smarter, better.

Such are the words of advice from a man who, five years ago, was not much of a father. From 1992 through '95, Marsalis was bandleader for The Tonight Show, a gig that never earned him enough money to compensate for the fact he was branded a sellout by fellow jazzers (among them brother Wynton, who had earlier lamented his brother's decision to play with Sting) and kept thousands of miles away from Reese, whose mother Branford has divorced.

Marsalis will forever stick by his decision to act as Jay Leno's musical director and sidekick; but when he quit The Tonight Show, it was not an admission of artistic guilt. Rather, it was so he could move back to New York, where he could help his son with his homework, send him to piano lessons, make him part of the family Branford had always craved. In a few months, Reese will move in with Branford and his new wife. The family will be complete.

The move comes just months after Marsalis' longtime pianist and dear friend Kenny Kirkland died from heart failure, the result of a drug habit long whispered about in jazz circles but never made public. Most of the articles about Marsalis and the just-released Requiem--the last record on which Kirkland will appear, and the finest of Marsalis' brilliant career--never mention how Kirkland died, only that his sudden death resulted in a batch of first takes being turned into an official release. Of his friend and colleague's death, Marsalis notes that it "sucked the life out of" the sessions that Marsalis, drummer Jeff "Tain" Watts and new bassist Eric Reves tried to cut following Kirkland's passing. Though they tried to continue on without Kirkland, the trio ultimately released Requiem untouched, the product of four friends finding a new sound that surprised even them.

"It was never like, 'Shit, where did this come from?' but more like, 'Shit, it's finally here,'" Marsalis says of the beautiful noise on Requiem. "It's just a matter of waiting on it. If I hadn't done all those other side projects, I would have probably gotten to it sooner, but I don't think that the ubiquitous it would have had the same amount of depth and character that it does.

"It still would have been good, but I don't think that it would have been like this. I can't imagine that it would have been, because we were real mischievous kids by nature, and we still kind of maintain a certain level of that mischievousness in the playing. At one time, we were known more for our quixotic identity than any kind of depth of the music, and that was the time that we were the most popular. Depth don't play in America no way, and we still have that sense of humor."

The result is a sprawling, intimate, poignant, reeling disc that moves like a speck of dust in a tornado. It's a restless record, the sound of men--after years of playing together and apart, especially during Marsalis and Kirkland's stint in Sting's first solo band--finally finding within them the guts to go so far out that they can't see dry land behind them. Not since John Coltrane's late-period work has a commercially viable, critically revered (for the most part) sax player taken the sort of risks heard on Requiem. It moves from ballads to bop to free within just a few breaths, takes chances like few jazz records--hell, like few records of any kind--released this decade. Listening to it is like accepting a dare, like hopping on a roller coaster that runs for miles with a thousand upside-down twists and inside-out turns along the way. The nine minutes and 40 seconds of "Lykief" leads the way: beautiful intro, breathless and smiling sad, until suddenly, unexpectedly, it races forward, out of control . . . but not. These men know what they're doing. They're discovering within them the music they knew they had inside them, but had not yet heard.

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