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Requiem, produced by Branford's trombone-wielding brother Delfeayo, is the sound of students becoming revolutionaries; it's the sound of men raised on Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, Led Zeppelin, King Crimson and James Brown stirring the shit up 'til it sounds like the unheard music. Listening to Requiem is surely what it must have been like in the 1950s to have stumbled across Bird and Miles and Diz for the first time. It's to be reminded that the very best jazz, the very best music, exists somewhere between the head and the heart.
Branford is, in so many ways, the antithesis of his younger brother, Wynton, a man who has dedicated his life to preserving the music's history--touring with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra with an all-Ellington repertoire, releasing albums consisting of nothing but standards (including a forthcoming Monk tribute). Where Wynton is a talented revivalist driven by the most noble, but ultimately limiting, of ambitions, Branford is the visionary whose albums have consisted mostly of his own compositions. The former Art Blakey sideman respects yesterday, but sees only the day after tomorrow. Leave the history lessons to others, those who live at Birdland, as Branford says, referring to the famed New York City club where old men spend their forevers pretending it's 1955. The future is now. March on.
A conversation with Branford Marsalis is something like one of his solos; he turns interviews into essay questions. Every response begins as an answer, but goes off on its own tangent until it twists back in, finds its beginning and provides its solution. Marsalis, currently a creative consultant for Columbia Records' jazz division, is obsessed with exploring, and he is in no rush to reach the end.
If Branford Marsalis were to spend the rest of his life on the road and in the studio--were he willing to sacrifice his newfound role as father, husband and family cook--he would no doubt be hailed as the greatest sax player to come along since Coltrane. But he is not willing to give that up for accolades he couldn't care less about. He now tours for no more than two weeks at a time, content to spend the rest of the time playing father, writing and practicing and rooting for the New York Mets. Fifteen years after his first record as bandleader, Scenes in the City, he has finally released his masterpiece. It is no doubt only the first.
New Times: How do you reconcile the idea of touring, when you'd rather be home cooking and arguing about homework?
Branford Marsalis: Because if I didn't go on tour, we'd be cooking on a fucking Sterno. In a tent on a Sterno stove, or on 14th Street and 10th Avenue. So it's easy to reconcile. The euphoria of playing is incredible, but it doesn't really make up for the missed time with my kid.
NT: Is it fair to say that you've matured during the last five years?
BM: I have. There's no doubt. I can't argue that point.
NT: Does playing mean something different to you now, especially since you've come to a place where you're almost happier being the attentive father?
BM: It's even better now, because the great thing and the sad thing about being a musician is that if you have shit in your life that troubles you, you have a place to hide. Being great in your 20s, you're forced to make a decision on the side of truth and reality or the side of Birdland. You fucking live in Birdland ad infinitum. You can just live there and say, "I don't have time to deal with these children, I am a creative musician and have to follow my muse." I wouldn't be the first musician to do it: "Don't talk to me about my family, talk to me about Miles Davis."
NT: Your decision to reconcile family with your career is a fascinating one, especially when you consider jazzers in Dallas, such as the late James Clay and Marchel Ivery, who sacrificed recognition for family.
BM: I was at Juilliard today talking to the students, a bunch of seniors, and they were talking about the whole issue of to sell out or to not sell out. I'm like, "Man, how many of you guys practice more than an hour a day?" And, of course, all the hands went up. I go, "Well, all those years that you were practicing, what was it that you thought of while you were practicing? Why were you practicing? What was your goal?" And it's amazing, I couldn't get a fucking answer. I was like, "Was it fame? Did you think, 'I'll do this, and one day I'll be a great successful solo performer?'" And then a bunch of hands went up.
I said, "How many people were just practicing saying, 'You know, man, I hate practicing, but I love music so much that the shit is worth it?'" And, like, one or two tentative hands went up. But that's the shit. Call me naive, but music is its own reward.
NT: Requiem was not released the way that you intended it to be, but it still seems more fully formed than your earlier records, especially such discs as Scenes in the City and Royal Garden Blues.