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Branford, the Jazz Artist, Returns

The Marsalis brother who revels in disparate projects prepares for a series of shows with only bass and drums accompanying his sax.

November 24, 1996|Don Heckman | Don Heckman is The Times' jazz writer

Branford Marsalis, the cutting-edge jazz tenor saxophonist. Branford Marsalis, the popster-style leader of the group Buckshot LeFonque. Branford Marsalis, the one-time TV bandleader. Branford Marsalis, the classical music lover, the social philosopher, the passionate golfer.

Pinning down Marsalis, a versatile, eclectic musical artist, a deep thinker and an articulate conversationalist, is no easy task. And that's exactly the way he wants it. "Life," he says, "is filled with nuances."

And there have been nuances aplenty in Marsalis' busy career. Viewed by many as one of the most influential saxophonists to emerge in the '80s, he then diluted much of his support in the jazz community through collaborations with pop acts such as Sting and the Grateful Dead. His musical fluctuation was particularly apparent when he won a Grammy award in 1993 for best jazz instrumental performance, followed with one in 1994 for best pop instrumental performance.

The Branford Marsalis who checks into the Jazz Bakery on Tuesday night for a rare six-night run will presumably be the jazz saxophonist. For his fans, it will be the first opportunity in years to hear Marsalis in a relatively pure, straight-ahead jazz environment. Typically, he will play in musically demanding fashion, performing with only bass and drums (Reginald Veal and Jeff "Tain" Watts, respectively) for accompaniment. With an ensemble that lacks a chordally based accompaniment instrument such as the guitar or piano, he will be obliged to fill all the gaps with his single-note, tenor saxophone lines--a demanding job, but one that he relishes.

"There are some things you can do with piano and saxophone, without bass and drums, which is what I did with my father [on the Columbia album "Loved Ones"], and there are things you can do with bass and drums, without piano, and that's what we're doing with this group."

The trio is the same that appears on Marsalis' recently released album, "The Dark Keys," his first recording in the format since 1993's "Bloomington."

Another Marsalis nuance will surface early next year with the release of a new Buckshot LeFonque album, "Musical Evolution." Although the first Buckshot recording was far and away Marsalis' most commercially successful album, critical reviews were not exactly overflowing with praise.

Why the lack of focus? Why the dilution of Marsalis' jazz presence at a time when younger artists--most notably, tenor saxophonist Joshua Redman--have been moving to the jazz center stage that once seemed his logical destination?

Marsalis brushes aside such considerations. He doesn't brook comparisons easily, praising what he considers to be good work, criticizing music he feels is not as good as it should be. Unlike his brother Wynton, whose career has progressed in a series of connected musical and professional phases, Branford Marsalis insists upon the right to leap freely from project to project, to explore what interests him creatively and to reject any label.

He is proceeding with Buckshot, for example, simply because the format interests him, and not because of any desire to tap into the current trend toward blending jazz with various pop music formats.

"I'm not interested in the status quo," he says. "We have a sound that works for us and I'm going to go ahead and explore all the possibilities. A lot of cats want to explore this useless territory called hip-hop/jazz. So they use the hip-hop as a vehicle to draw in people who can't get with the abstraction of swing, and then they play all these solos on top of it. And it just doesn't work, because the solos are just as abstract as swing.

"All these musical styles have a language of their own. And if you're going to tamper with the language, you have to do it within the rules. You can't just stick some [stuff] on top of it."

Marsalis' insistence upon shifting from style to style, from thought to thought, from career choice to career choice, is an essential part of who he is. A conversation with the trim, athletic musician (who favors team shirts and sweatpants) can bounce from a discussion of the new NBA season to the intricacies of the Bartok Concerto for Orchestra to his feelings about what he views as cultural hypocrisy.

"I had a woman come to me at a concert recently," he recalls, "and ask if I was a fan of 'black art.' And I said, 'No, I'm a fan of art.' And she said, 'Oh, so you only collect white art.' I said, 'No, that's not what I said. I don't collect art at all, but if I were to collect art, I would do my best to collect Romare Bearden. But I would also have books on Renoir and Van Gogh, because I'm a fan of art; I'm not a fan of black art.' "

Marsalis, 36, is similarly critical of fashion trends, in music and elsewhere.

"The problem is that most people," he says, "much like Pavlov's dogs, wait to be told who's hip, wait to be told who's in, and then they go ahead and follow it, with religious fervor, for a second or two. And then it's on to the next thing.

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