A revolutionary jazz musician and Grammy-winning saxophonist, Branford Marsalis is in a league of his own. He is an NEA Jazz Master and Tony award nominee for the original score for the revival of August Wilson’s Fences. The New Orleans native, eldest son of pianist and educator Ellis Marsalis and the brother of Wynton, Delfeayo and Jason Marsalis, the musician began his career as a youngster, picking up the clarinet first. He eventually settled on the soprano sax and worked with Clark Terry and his brother, Wynton, in Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers while in college. In 1986, he formed his own quartet, which has become one of the most widely respected groups in jazz.
In 2015, Marsalis and his quartet received a rare invitation to join Kurt Elling in a weekend performance at the New Orleans Snug Harbor. Elling and Marsalis recorded their collaboration, which can be heard on the 2016 release Upward Spiral, which was nominated for a 2017 Grammy for Best Jazz Vocal Album. Now the artist and his ensemble have released The Secret between the Shadow and the Soul, which capitalizes on Marsalis’ collaborations with Sting and Elling. “Working with Kurt for a year and a half took me back to what I learned in hindsight from my gig with Sting,” he said. “Working with a singer changes you in ways you don’t realize. When I started playing jazz, after my background in R & B, all the possibilities I discovered led me to play solos that went on and on. Sting said, ‘No, you’ve got 45 seconds,’ which did more than just cause me to edit. It taught me to focus on the melodies, to get to the point.”
Marsalis and his group have longevity not often seen in the music business. Pianist Joey Calderazzo and bassist Eric Revis have been with the group for more than 20 years, and drummer Justin Faulkner, known as “the rookie,” has been with it for a decade. In addition to performing, each of the veterans, including Marsalis, is a composer and their works are heard on the recording and in concert. For Marsalis, it’s about the non-verbal story-telling, a lesson he learned from Sonny Rollins. “Sonny Rollins provided the template for playing each piece with a ton of vocabulary and how to use the sound of one’s instrument,” he said. “With us, it’s all about the sound and the power it has to create emotion. When you deal with sound, you don’t play the same thing twice in a row. You listen to each other and every song is different.”
Marsalis has had a wildly successful career as a solo artist, working with some of the best classical ensembles in the world. He has performed with the New York Philharmonic, Chicago and Dusselfdorf Symphonies, and performed his first solo concert at San Francisco’s Grace Church in 2014, a performance documented in the recording, “In My Solitude.” He served as creative director for the Ascent series for the Cincinnati Symphony in 2012-2013 and served as musical director to The Tonight show with Jay Leno.
Still, Marsalis finds that his band works best for him. “Some musicians may need to work in different projects to create the illusion of sounding different by changing the context,” he said. “We are confident that we can adjust our group sound so we don’t have to change the content. Staying together allows us to play adventurous, sophisticated music and sound good. Lack of familiarity leads to defensive playing, playing not to make a mistake. I like playing sophisticated music and I couldn’t create this music with people I didn’t know.”
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