on a serious note

UP FRONT

Innovation: Branford Marsalis, whose quartet headlines the Columbia Festival of the arts, blends pop and traditional sounds into a cocktail of pure, modern jazz.

June 17, 1999|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,Sun Pop Music Critic

Branford Marsalis admits that "Requiem," his latest release, is not the album he wanted to make.

"No," he says, and laughs ruefully. "But [stuff] happens.

Work on the album started normally, with Marsalis taking his quartet -- pianist Kenny Kirkland, drummer Jeff "Tain" Watts and bassist Eric Revis -- into the studio to learn some new material.

"Those guys are just horrible at rehearsals," the saxophonist explains, over the phone from New York. "What I like to do is just take two days in the studio, which puts the pressure on them because the tape is rolling. So they're concentrating, but they're getting their [butts] kicked by the song."

After those preliminary sessions, Marsalis took the group on the road for a month, so the tunes could sink in and marinate. Then, he says, they were to have gone back into the studio and "record it for real."

But one of them didn't make it.

Kirkland, Marsalis' longtime collaborator and pianist, died of a drug overdose before the group could re-record those tracks. So Marsalis wound up releasing those initial sessions, dubbing the disc "Requiem" in tribute to Kirkland.

Naturally, Kirkland's unexpected death has left a lot of listeners curious about how Marsalis' current group, with pianist Joey Calderazzo in Kirkland's place, will sound. (Marsalis' quartet performs at the Columbia Festival of the Arts tomorrow.) But in a weird way, Kirkland's untimely demise has earned Marsalis some of the most attentive reviews he's received in years.

"It's funny," says Marsalis. "People start talking about how good the record is, and I'm like: 'Yeah. Thanks, Kenny.' Because a lot of people used to make statements about our music while never really checking it out. And if Kenny had lived, it probably would have been more of the same [for this album]."

One reason Marsalis' music hadn't gotten the objective attention it deserved is that he's seen as the prodigal son of the Marsalis clan. Unlike little brother Wynton, who has been busily enshrining the jazz tradition at Lincoln Center, Branford seems almost to have spent as much time outside jazz circles as in. In addition to a lengthy association with Sting, he has recorded with Public Enemy, sat in with the Grateful Dead and, for a while, succeeded Doc Severinsen as leader of "The Tonight Show" band.

Because Branford had such a high profile in pop music, many had a hard time taking him seriously as a jazz musician. Kirkland, who also played with Sting and on "The Tonight Show," was similarly tarred. "Everything has to be defined in very simple terms, so that people can say: 'Oh, yeah. Kirkland. The jazz musician,'" says Branford, who despairs at people's inability to imagine that "a couple of people could be good at two things."

At the same time, the fact that Branford takes the jazz end of his career so seriously makes it that much less likely that the casual listener will even cock an ear in that direction. "I mean, I was lucky enough to play with one of the greatest pianists in the world, and we made some really, really good music that is not easy to play," he says.

"But that's part of the problem. Because at the end of the day, everything in our country is subject to the laws of entertainment, and jazz radio is no different than pop radio -- even though they like to say they are. They play the songs that have the most pleasing melodies. They play the songs that embrace a certain kind of happy-go-lucky sensibility ... all those entertainment points."

Marsalis' quartet has none of that. As another of his brothers, trombonist/producer Delfayo, remarks in the liner notes to "Requiem," the music made by Branford's quartet is based on four principles: "1) extreme dynamic contrast, 2) subjective and objective time, 3) subjective and objective harmony, [and] 4) varying levels of intensity."

In other words, the group wants to uphold all the traditional elements of jazz improvisation -- playing in time, following the chord changes -- while at the same time pushing the envelope as much as possible. It's modern music, but firmly rooted in the past.

"I've always thought that the gateway to the modern [stuff] was through the tradition," says Branford. "You can play modern music if you don't do that, but it always gets to a place and then it just stops. It doesn't really expand."

Marsalis is particularly appalled by those so-called modernists who believe that the purpose of the avant-garde is to destroy tradition and replace it with some half-baked notion of "free expression."

"I heard Anthony Braxton play 'Giant Steps' once," he says, referring to the well-known avant-garde saxophonist. "He played the melody, and then he just went out." That is, Braxton's solo totally disregarded the harmonic structure that is the heart of "Giant Steps," replacing it with atonal ideas of Braxton's own -- an act of creative arrogance that irks Marsalis no end.

"Why say, 'This is "Giant Steps"?' No, it's not. You're just squawking," he gripes.

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