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JAZZ : The Brash, Bright Branford Marsalis

November 25, 1990|ZAN STEWART | 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.

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