Jazz Purist Brings His Sax To Annapolis

March 15, 1991|By Samuel Goldreich | Samuel Goldreich,Staff writer

Only three people will take the stage in Annapolis tomorrow night when Branford Marsalis arrives with his bassist and drummer at the Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts. But anyone paying attention will hear a small army of tradition every time Marsalis blows through his saxophone.

More than most jazz musicians, Marsalis has made a point of explicitly acknowledging the debt he owes to those who revolutionized his instrument.

On each of his album jackets, Marsalis pays special thanks to thevarious artists forming the creative continuum -- from Duke Ellington, Ben Webster, Charlie Parker and Thelonius Monk to Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman and Wayne Shorter -- that lays the foundation of his own work.

Marsalis, 30, has harsh words for those members of his generation who imagine that they have created a "new" music in a vacuum.

"That's because they're fake," said Marsalis, who landed yesterday in New York after touring Europe. "I think Wynton (Branford's celebrated trumpet-playing brother) said it best: 'Among some musicians and writers there's an obsession with that which is new. But what's new isn't necessarily what's good.' "

All music has its own references and building blocks, just like any other human endeavor, Marsalis said.

"The best analogy is a writer who says, 'Shakespeare is - - - -; Faulkner - - - -s; James Baldwin - - - -s. I'm going to start a new order. I'm going start a new way of writing -- beginning words with letters in the middle.' People would kick your ass. They'd throw you out."

Marsalis has a similar lack of patience for jazz critics who listened to his early albums and asked when he would develop his own style.

"The only thing new is the perspective," he said. "I'll gladly write in that I'll have my own voice when they have their own apart from the people who came before. They'd fall very short."

Like Wynton, Marsalis has a strong grounding in formalclassical and jazz training, beginning in New Orleans under the tutelage of their pianist father, Ellis Marsalis.

Although both playedfor Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers 10 years ago, Wynton's career has overshadowed his older brother's.

Both have also released classicalalbums. But Branford's decision to tour and record with rock's Stingcreated a passing concern within his family that music writers have happily and facilely fixated upon to speculate about who is the more serious or enjoyable musician.

For example, the current calendar issued by the Anne Arundel County Commission of Culture and the Arts says, "While Wynton is a dead-serious jazz purist, Branford is the happy-go-lucky musical explorer."

"Somebody thinks he's too serious,like there's something wrong with what Wynton is about," Marsalis said. "I guess the same thing's wrong with Wynton as was wrong with vanGogh. When we play our music we're not trying to be popular. It's not even funny. It's sad."

Most speculation about when Marsalis would come into his own ended in 1989 with the release of "Trio Jeepy," which won him his fifth Grammy award nomination.

But the album attracted its widest praise for rejuvenating the blues through Marsalis' rhythmic and melodic interplay with bassist Milt Hinton, whose 50-year career spans the emergence of modern jazz with Louis Armstrong to constant recording throughout the post-bop era.

Marsalis was again nominated for a Grammy last year for "Crazy People Music."

The album was greeted as the synthesis of Marsalis' lifelong study of his musical forefathers that has produced his always evolving personal voice.

In the liner notes, jazz critic Leonard Feather wrote that Marsalis masters all forms of jazz and blues, demonstrating his ability to give precise musical voice to his ever-shifting emotions.

He wrote: " 'Crazy People Music' might seem like an odd title for an artist, who, when the circumstances demand it, is dead serious about his music; but that is part of the Janus-faced personality of Branford. It is as if he were capable of playing simultaneously in a major and a minor key. When you are around him, you see and hear the major key -- an upbeat, outgoing artist with provocative and valuable opinions on every subject, a man at once of good humor and rare depth. The minor keys are likely as not to surface in his music."

True to the chameleonlike saxophonist Feather described, Marsalis said his performancetomorrow will not include material from his recent recordings. "Oncewe record the record, it's old music," he said.

Unfortunately, tomorrow's concert is sold out. But Marsalis will play April 13 at Morgan State University in Baltimore. For information, call 444-3352

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