Some call it magic but for this sax genius it’s just “playin’ tunes” 

By Jeff Tamarkin 

Branford Marsalis has never been one to hold back. The 52-year-old tenor and soprano saxophonist freely says and plays what he wants. So the title of his quartet’s new release Four MFs Playin’ Tunes shouldn’t shock anyone—but it does. “A writer came to the session and asked my least favorite question: ‘What’s the concept of this record?’” recalls Marsalis. “I told him, ‘Records don’t have concepts.’ He said, ‘A lot of guys wouldn’t agree with that.’ And I said, ‘OK, you know what the concept is? It’s four MFs playin’ tunes.’ He went, ‘What? That’s it?’ I said, ‘Yeah. We’re just playin’ tunes.’”

For the eldest of pianist Ellis Marsalis’ five jazz-playing sons, “just playin’ tunes” has been an ever-evolving journey of discovery. Since the Louisiana-born artist’s early days performing with younger brother Wynton and apprenticing with legendary drummer Art Blakey, Branford’s approach to music has pushed boundaries, even when exiting jazz for the worlds of rock (a Sting band member for more than a decade), classical (a composer since 2000), and TV (The Tonight Show bandleader from 1992-95). Marsalis has recorded more than a dozen albums and won three Grammys, and also serves as an artist-in-residence at North Carolina Central University.

Four MFs Playin’ Tunes was recorded at the Hayti Center in Durham, N.C., the city Marsalis has called home since 2002—and was created with longtime Branford Marsalis Quartet members Joey Calderazzo (piano) and Eric Revis (bass), and newest addition, 20-year-old drummer Justin Faulkner. “Our whole thing is to play tunes with emotional effect,” says Marsalis. The outspoken artist gave us his take on the new album and what he’s learned from John Coltrane, Art Blakey, Miles Davis and The Tonight Show.

Why the provocative title?

I actually didn’t want to call the record that. Every time I make an album, I never come up with a title, and my management company presses me for one. To buy time, I come up with the stupidest title I can think of. So when they asked this time, I told them. They said, “That’s great!” I said, “Not great. You can’t use that!” Yes, I’ve got a potty mouth, but I don’t just put it out there. But they ran with it. Usually they’re telling me, “You can’t use that.” But this time they loved it, so I said, “Maybe I should just shut up.”


The title pretty much says it all.

When you think about the history of jazz recordings, they’d call a session, dudes would play some tunes and they’d put it out. Then John Coltrane did A Love Supreme, which is the ultimate concept record. Sonny Rollins did Freedom Suite and Max Roach did the Freedom Now Suite. But I reject the idea that every record is a concept.


What about your version of 2002’s A Love Supreme

I didn’t do it as a concept record. A Love Supreme for me was a challenge for the band, and we got out of it what we needed to get out of it.


Why remake such an iconic album?

Because of the rewards. One of the things for me was the fear factor—everyone is afraid of it. But Bach and Mozart wrote masses. There are all these tributes to God that are played ad infinitum today—Handel’s Messiah, Bach’s Christmas Oratorio—yet for some reason, the one record dedicated to God by a jazz musician should never be played again? That’s BS. It gives musicians an out, and they don’t have to deal with the fact that they can’t play it. There are tons of guys who listen to Coltrane, so how come they don’t sound like Coltrane? Because they did not do the work that Coltrane did to get to where he was.


So you weren’t afraid of the work.

One of the things I knew the band would benefit from was the challenge of having to play music with sustained levels of intensity for 40 minutes or more. Who does that anymore? The first time we played it, in Paris in 2001, we were huffing and puffing when it was over. I bit through my lip—there was blood all over my mouthpiece. I’m blessed that I don’t have a fear of sounding bad in front of people. When I listen to early jazz and read about it, there wasn’t a fear of failure. Cats would just go out and play. Now guys practice, practice, practice, then they rehearse for six days, then they make the record and it sounds like a bulwark against the possibility of something spontaneous actually happening.


How did you approach the new album?

We took the same approach we always take. But we’re years better—better musicians, better instrumentalists, and we listen to many different styles of music so songs can be more versatile. And Justin brings a fresh attitude, a youthful energy. It wasn’t like we played badly, but then the kid comes in and starts changing up the songs and direction. We looked at each other and said, “We became the old married couple and didn’t even realize it.”


How do you stay interested in projects?

I have a love of music—that helps. You can always find music that kicks your ass. There are some musicians who prefer to use music as a vehicle to validate their position. A magazine from years ago would ask musicians what they’re listening to. The rap guys would name 10 rap records, metal guys would name 10 metal albums. But my listening taste was much wider than 10 jazz records. I’m more inclined to listen to dead classical guys now.


How do you benefit from playing other genres?

You bring something back every time you play with someone. I didn’t play jazz as a kid; I didn’t like it. I was geared toward popular music growing up. My dad had a firm belief that any music is hard enough to play if you like it. But if you don’t like it, you’ve got no shot. He wasn’t interested in pushing me in any specific direction.


What did you learn from Art Blakey?

That I didn’t know anything about jazz. He never felt the need to let me know how much he actually knew. But when he would talk about things he liked, you’d get a sense of how much he knew. It was mind-blowing how much information he had. I wasn’t one of his favorite guys—he didn’t like me very much. I have a strong personality, and when I came into the band I had a couple of confrontations with some guys after about six weeks of putting up with their BS. But the stuff I learned from him musically I still use on the bandstand now. It wasn’t until he was dying that he was kind of nice to me.


What was it like working with the innovating legend Miles Davis?

He gave me some chord changes and said, “Play the changes.” I started playing them and he said, “Good, now stop playing them.” I remember thinking, “What the …?” I get it now—the chord changes were a point of reference, not the actual thing. He could have just said, “Now that you understand the structure of the song, go make music.” But that wasn’t his way. I didn’t know the song, so he let me go a couple of times before saying, “OK, this is the take,” as he crumbled up the sheet music and threw it across the room. I was forced to rely on my ears and react to what was going on. That’s what his genius was.


What did you take away from The Tonight Show?

I learned a lot about myself, about entertainment and how much it’s changed. I’m better off now. What matters to me in music is what I think about it, not what the people who buy records think about it. In entertainment today, the viewer gets the final say—and look where we are now. I want them to like it, but they don’t get the final say.


What’s next?

We’re going on the road. We’ll play, learn new tunes, and when I get a sense the band is moving in the direction in which we should record, we’ll record.

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