BRANFORD Marsalis is no stranger to Australia, and he has two loose front teeth to prove it.
The saxophonist, who in early days played alto with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers and mostly tenor and soprano with his brother Wynton’s quintet, first visited with Sting in 1986, touring for five weeks and developing a love for Australian football.
“We played with the production crew in Brisbane and I almost had two of my front teeth knocked out,” Marsalis recalls in a phone interview before his quartet tours next month (March).
“I’d played grid iron in high school and I was never one to hang back from a confrontation, so I didn’t get too upset about it — it just comes with the territory.”
At 49 Marsalis may be past his prime as a footballer, but not as a musician. His quartet of 10 years is now without drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts, but has acquired energetic 18-year-old Justin Faulkner to join Eric Revis on bass and Joey Calderazzo on piano. Their performance in May at New York’s Jazz Standard was hailed as “compulsively loud, fast, aggressive, generous and interactive”.
Marsalis says Watts decided, “after 30 years associated with Branford and Wynton Marsalis to do what I’d recommended five years ago and create his own identity”.
The quartet has been playing material from their recent album Metamorphosen, but Melbourne’s concert may be different. “We are playing a bunch of stuff now that I’m fairly convinced we won’t be playing in March. We don’t have a set list,” Marsalis says.
On Jabberwocky, one of his compositions on that album, Marsalis plays alto “because my tenor was in the shop for repair and I thought I’d transpose it later. But it didn’t work. It’s the sound, not the emotion … how the emotion is delivered. Each piece has a proper range that seems to suit it.”
It’s his first recording on alto in 20 years, at least officially. “There was an Ornette Coleman piece on a Kenny Kirkland album when I played alto, but for the track listing we invented a character called Roderick Ward. No one picked it up. I had critics asking ‘Who’s this Roderick Ward?’, but they didn’t pick it was me.”
Marsalis doesn’t expect a young audience, but says that’s okay “because jazz is not for kids”.
“In society today there is a type of social narcissism that began in the sixties. There is a focus on what is popular with 18 to 25-year –olds. Though we do get some young people in the audience, most are old — by that I mean 40 or above,” he says.
“People’s musical tastes are pretty much fixed from the time they are seven or eight until they are about 40. It would be the worst thing if I was playing for 18-year-olds, because most people that age want lyric content. We play instrumental music without a static backbeat.”
Marsalis says for most Americans music is just background noise.
“It’s something you listen to while vacuuming or having sex, and in the background while watching television. I suppose in a way I regret that, but in another way I’m OK with that. Because in recent years my music has changed. It has evolved since the days when I was mixing only with musicians. Now I find my music is more in tune with people’s lives, that it speaks more to them.”
Australian bassist Leigh Barker, who has corresponded online with Marsalis in a jazz forum, will open the concert with Tom Vincent on piano, Hugh Harvey on drums and Eamon McNelis on trumpet.
Branford Marsalis Quartet performs at Hamer Hall at 7.30pm on March 16.
This review appeared in the Herald Sun, Melbourne on February 19, 2010.