The brothers Marsalis are an interesting study in dichotomy. Wynton, the younger, is an absolute giant in the Jazz community and he has no qualms about his genre elitism, vociferously and famously proclaiming the need to maintain Jazz’s purity and sanctity and rejecting anything outside of his definition (although he teamed up with Eric Clapton for an excellent Blues/Jazz hybrid concert at Lincoln Center last year and with Willie Nelson and Norah Jones for a Ray Charles tribute in 2009).
Branford, the elder, who has a doctorate in music, views music through a much broader lens, embracing Pop, Jazz, Classical and anything in the vicinity, which has led to a long association with Sting, a brief stint as Jay Leno’s bandleader on The Tonight Show and sessions and gigs with artists as varied as Miles Davis, Bela Fleck, Harry Connick Jr., Dave Matthews Band and the Dead.
When the question is posed as to the reason for the brothers’ stylistic divergence, Branford Marsalis has a ready, if not totally enlightening, answer.
“It’s like saying how did it come to be that I’m 5 feet 11 inches (tall) and he’s 5 feet 9 inches. How the fuck do I know?” the alto saxophonist says with a laugh from his Seattle hotel room. “People are good at stuff. Wynton played trumpet great and he was a great basketball player. I sucked at basketball. I couldn’t even conceptualize it. I had a bad shot, never could get it right. Why? Because that’s what it is.
“What I like about Sting is that he’s not a Pop purist. Pop purists can’t do anything else, either. The reality of Wynton is that he’s not very good at playing Pop music, so it would be foolish for him to play it. I’m pretty good at it so it makes sense.”
Marsalis is quick to point up the hypocrisy at work in judging any musician — Pop, Jazz or otherwise — on a sliding scale.
“I forced Wynton to join my Funk band and he had a great time doing it, but it was never his natural inclination,” Marsalis says. “It’s always been funny as an observer from a distance when that discussion comes up, because it’s never a requirement that Pop people do anything other than play Pop, but Jazz people are supposed to play Pop and like it or they’re branded.
And when Sting does outside of Pop, they criticize him for being snobby. It’s an ironic thing to notice. There’s some weird thing in how people perceive it or what pop culture needs to be for them. I’ve never heard anybody criticize Bono for not singing opera.
“This writer Gary Giddins wrote a great piece about Jazz. He said that Jazz, in either major magazines or American popular culture, is either dead or possibly relevant. If it’s actually Jazz, it’s dead. If it’s Jazz guys playing bad versions of Pop tunes, it’s possibly relevant. It’s a decade old now, but I laughed my ass off when I read it because I’ve been on both sides of that conversation.”
While Marsalis is slightly more inclusive in his musical activities than his brother, he is no less a perfectionist in those pursuits. On symphony dates like his upcoming appearance with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, Marsalis serves as a guest artist, playing the program that is presented to him by each orchestra. On an extended run of dates like the one he’s on now, that translates to a formidable amount of rehearsal time to capture the nuance and majesty of each piece of music.
“I let the symphony decide what they think is effective in their market, since they know it better than I do,” Marsalis says. “It’s my job to just practice and prepare the material they think will be most successful for the concert.”
While it might seem like Classical and Jazz performances are drawn from vastly different creative perspectives — Classical’s adherence to the notes in the score as opposed to Jazz’s improvisational nature — Marsalis sees the similarities rather than the differences.
“You could make the argument that Jazz is played the same way every time if you spend any time listening to Jazz records these days. ‘Didn’t I hear that solo on the last song?’ ” Marsalis says. “The point is that all music is conversational. Some music is conversational like two dudes standing on the corner, and we all know how to do that. Then there’s the kind of conversation that actors have to do, where you have to develop a character and make the character believable and you’ve got to learn 10,000 words. But those words have to sound like they come from your mouth, or they don’t work.
“For me, there are varying degrees. Yeah, there is a certain level of technical specificity that is required in no other form of music and there are tone and control issues that are not in any of our other musics, which you just play at two volumes for the most part — loud and louder. Those are the things that are challenges, but I’ve listened to enough Classical music to know what it’s supposed to sound like and what the accents should be. The most amazing thing about 800 years of Western music is that it’s all based on the same 12 notes. I don’t have to learn any new notes, I just have to learn a different dialect.”
For this weekend’s CSO performances, bannered as “Beauty, Bliss and Branford,” Marsalis will be performing compositions like Barber’s “Night Flight,” Prokofiev’s “Lieutenant Kije Suite” and Jacob Ter Veldhuis’ “Tallahatchie Concerto.” Marsalis points out that he’s well versed in the Barber and Prokofiev pieces, but his candid assessment of his familiarity with the Ter Veldhuis composition goes well beyond self-deprecation.
“I’ve played it twice, the first time in 2004 and the last time in 2010, and it sucked both times,” Marsalis says. “I need to prepare better, prepare different and continue to try and improve. I don’t know how anybody could have thought it was good. If you try to convey an emotion to people who don’t live in the world of the technical specificity of music, you can be successful, they can enjoy it. But for me, it was just bad. Listening to a recording of it affirmed how bad I thought it was.
“It’s just back to the drawing board, you keep working at it. That’s what I love about it.”
BRANFORD MARSALIS performs with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra at Over-the-Rhine’s Music Hall Friday and Saturday. Tickets and more info: cincinnatisymphony.org.