Marsalis plays star-maker on 'Tonight'

April 28, 1993|By Los Angeles Daily News

Branford Marsalis, saxophonist and leader of TV's most visible house band, plays down his ability to put little-known jazz artists in front of a nightly audience of 8 million to 10 million viewers.

Since May 25, when Jay Leno launched the new-look "Tonight Show," a chorus line of less-than-household names has joined the Marsalis band for numbers that are heard by home viewers only when the screen flickers in and out of commercials.

But even that tiny exposure can have a surging effect on album sales, as saxophonist Everette Harp discovered last year when he played several of his own tunes with the Marsalis band. Although Leno thanked Harp for sitting in -- and flashed the cover of his debut disc on camera -- the saxophonist was heard by TV viewers only in seconds.

"The album got a boost from that," Harp said. "The appearances definitely helped." The album quickly rose to the No. 6 spot on the contemporary jazz charts after his June appearances.

At first, Marsalis and his band -- Kenny Kirkland on piano, Bob Hurst on bass, Jeff Watts on drums, Kevin Eubanks on guitar, Sal Marquez on trumpet, Matt Finders on trombone and Vicki Randle on percussion -- invited friends to the Burbank studio to sit in.

Guests from the jazz world have included saxophonist Bobby Watson, trumpeter-flugelhornist Clark Terry, pianists Geri Allen and Joey Calderazzo and trombonist Robin Eubanks, among others.

"The people that sit in with the band, that's our realm," Marsalis, 32, said recently. "It's become more of a business than we intended. When we started out, our friends who were in town would join us. Then, record companies started calling and it became something we didn't want it to be.

"But it's cool, because it gives music that's not mainstream an avenue to be heard."

Over the year, the Marsalis band has settled into a position that sparked strong feelings even before the first note was played. Some longtime fans of the previous "Tonight Show" orchestra -- and certain band members themselves -- were critical of the modern direction the new scaled-down band would take.

"The challenge for us was to maintain the quality of the music," Marsalis said. "I wanted to bring some really talented players down and have them on the payroll as NBC employees. When we first came here, there was nothing but people complaining. I don't think a lot of people in the industry anticipated the level of positive response we've received."

The band jumps from pop to country to R&B to hard rock with accomplished ease. It's a job Marsalis, who dislikes steady touring, plainly enjoys. Some performers arrive at the show without their regular musicians, secure in the knowledge that Marsalis and company will provide a sympathetic background.

"It's fun, man," Marsalis said. "First of all, we get an opportunity to play Earth, Wind & Fire, Garth Brooks and Bonnie Raitt tunes that we'd never do on our own. Plus, old [John] Coltrane and Miles Davis tunes and everything else. And based on the kinds of people we are, there's a lot of laughs to be had at the expense of guests on the show."

He declined to give examples.

Despite his efforts to put worthy, yet not widely known players in front of a mainstream audience, he has drawn criticism from some purists for taking the NBC gig in the first place.

In a letter to the New York Times magazine, pianist Keith Jarrett implied Marsalis' creative years are past, and lumped him with musicians who are "playing musical chairs and competing for public attention."

Marsalis said while he still respected Jarrett's musicianship, he considers the pianist simply "envious."

Signed to a five-year contract, Marsalis said he is "tremendously loyal" to Leno, who apparently fought to get the band on the program.

"It could not possibly have been a popular decision," Marsalis said. "I appreciate that he went to bat for us. I'm sure most of the people at this company had never heard of me."

During down time, Marsalis appears at local Los Angeles nightspots and at sessions with friends such as Bruce Hornsby, B. B. King, Fishbone and the Grateful Dead. He's currently working on a soundtrack for a segment of HBO's "Tales From the Crypt."

"We're a house band," Marsalis said, summing up. "I didn't come here to try and not make it a house band. We play during the commercials."

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