Creativity plays a key role in every musician's life. For Branford Marsalis, expressing that inventiveness means showing authenticity, spontaneity and imagination within the framework of a solo.
"A good jazz solo is one that has strong melodic imagination," he explains during a tour stop in Los Angeles. "The context of the solo, much like a conversation, is changed by the dialogue with the musicians."
The eldest of the Marsalis brothers, Branford creates compelling exchanges with his quartet while upholding Coltrane's legacy, evoking sensitive ballads and displaying a healthy classical sensibility.
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"I listen to a lot of music," says Marsalis, "and I listen to a lot of music with strong melodies. As a result, their influences on my music come out in myriad ways. I have a wide variety of types of songs."
His bandmates add to that diversity. For the past seven years, the saxman has been backed by the same musicians -- pianist Joey Calderazzo, bassist Eric Revis and drummer Jeff Tain Watts -- who each compose music for the group and bring a host of influences in their own right. Calderazzo's writing is informed by early and modern jazz, while Revis and Watts lean toward classic R&B. Marsalis, meanwhile, has given his ear to classical composers such as Henry Purcell, Richard Wagner and Igor Stravinsky in recent years. Together, these divergent inclinations allow the players to explore new ways to express their creativity.
"Jeff's songs have a lot more rhythmic variety," says Marsalis. "He writes melodies that are very singable. I write melodies that are very melodic, but not necessarily singable. My chord structures are a bit denser than Jeff's tunes. Eric's songs have really nice melodies. They're usually sparse harmonically. We're all different because we spend time listening to different kinds of music."
Listening, mind you, and not just regurgitating the same riffs -- something he feels has hindered many of today's younger players. Since the '70s, Marsalis contends, jazz instruction has become institutionalized at the university level; students are exposed to a standardized approach to building chord structures. Subsequently, many young jazz musicians have failed to find their own voice and convey their own personality through their music.
"Everything now is based more on harmonic analysis and execution," Marsalis asserts. "I think that is the biggest disconnection from the jam sessions. In Louisiana, where I am from, the blues is a sound. But to a lot of kids who play jazz today, blues is a twelve-bar form. They just try to outplay each other playing twelve-bar forms. If you go to a jam session now, the musicians are essentially playing the same licks. I think the musicians who grew up listening to blues-based music, which is based on sound more than a solid execution of harmonic paradigms and subsets, allows for more of one's personality to shine through.
"When I first got to New York, I had no idea of that stuff, because it was never talked about," he goes on. "It was never taught; you just bumped into it by accident. When I started to think about what was wrong with my playing, I talked to the older guys and they'd tell me, 'Your playing has no personality.' I didn't know what the hell that meant. It's fair enough to say that, but how do you fix it? Is it fixable? There's no pill you can take. So I started to take the music from a more historical context, and I would ask questions of the older guys. There was a holy trinity, as I call it. There was a clear relationship between the black church, the blues and dance music. When you listen to jazz in the '30s and '40s, you hear elements of all of that in the music."
Marsalis sees tenor saxman Wayne Shorter -- who's best known for his work with Miles Davis and Weather Report -- as someone who has succeeded at cultivating his own identity and distinct playing style and created some groundbreaking music in the process.
"A lot of the chords that he used were informed by the melody," Marsalis notes. "It was impossible to put one of those traditional jazz chord symbols on his songs. They had to be through-composed, not just a melody with a bunch of chords thrown on top. Classical music is a lot like that, too."
Marsalis's interest in classical music dates back more than a decade, to his years as bandleader on NBC's Tonight Show With Jay Leno. Twelve years later, after writing "Fate" for his latest effort, 2006's Grammy-nominated Braggtown, Marsalis realized that he subconsciously created a melody that came from the later parts of Wagner's "Ring Cycle" (Der Ring des Nibelungen).
"It took me months to sort out where I actually got it from," he explains. "There was a movie that came out that was a reinterpretation of Pocahontas and John Smith -- I can't remember the name of it. They used the overture to Wagner's Das Rheingold in the opening. I hadn't heard that forever, so I pulled out Das Rheingold and put it on my iPod. When I listened to that, it struck me that the melody I had played came from the later parts of the 'Ring Cycle.'"
After reaching that conclusion, Marsalis decided to rewrite the tune to include leitmotifs from Wagner's opera; the additional material then served as a transition to the song's piano solo. Henry Purcell's music proved to be equally inspirational. Late one night while he was driving home from his in-laws' house in Philadelphia back to his place in Durham, North Carolina -- where he has lived for the past four years -- Marsalis caught Purcell on the Vox, XM's vocal channel. Instantly captivated, he sent himself an e-mail reminder on his cell phone to dig a little deeper into Purcell's catalogue.
"When I got home," he recalls, "there was an e-mail waiting for me, and I went to Amazon and bought the CD."
Listening to "The Plaint," he felt the spaces and ostinatos would work well as a vehicle for his pianist to build chords upon, and for his quartet to reinterpret the music. Taking a cue from his father, who urged him and his brothers to listen to entire recordings rather than just one song, Branford kept listening and ended up being drawn to the last song on the record, "O Solitude," which he later decided to rearrange and reinterpret on Braggtown.
A similar creative and spiritual drive motivated Marsalis to work with fellow Crescent City native Harry Connick Jr. and the New Orleans chapter of Habitat for Humanity to create Musicians' Village, which will include the Ellis Marsalis Center for Music, along with 75 single-family homes and six senior-friendly duplexes. The project is being built in the Ninth Ward, an area that was devastated by Hurricane Katrina. Although he wasn't in the Big Easy when the storm ripped through the Gulf Coast, the impact and aftermath still hit extremely close to home.
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"My family was spread out like everybody else's," says Marsalis, "but because they lived on higher ground, their houses were not flooded. My parents were back home by November after the flood. My brother Delfeayo was back about the same time. His house was dry, but he had roof damage. They've replaced their appliances, and they're moving forward. My brother Jason had a house closer to Midtown, so he had mid-level flood damage; he's moving back this month. I was saddened by the devastation, and angry at the indifference of the government."
Through the generous support of musicians such as Jimmy Buffett, Dave Matthews, Hootie & the Blowfish and Bruce Springsteen, the project has raised a significant amount of money. Beyond that, Marsalis is doing his part to ensure that the music he loves not only survives in his home town, but thrives as a genre. To that end, he's continuing to focus on Marsalis Music, the imprint he launched in 2002, which has showcased musicians such as Doug Wamble, Miguel Zenon, Michael Carvin and Jimmy Cobb.
"We allow people to play creative and adventurous music," he concludes.
The lifeblood of every musician.