Jazz saxophonist Branford Marsalis keeps breaking boundaries

The Branford Marsalis Quartet performs at the Victoria Theatre Saturday.



Despite being part of a legendary jazz dynasty that includes his father, Ellis, and brothers Wynton, Jason and Delfeayo, Branford Marsalis has managed to distinguish himself from his other family members. The saxophonist, bringing his quartet to Victoria Theatre in Dayton on Saturday, March 18, is a major figure in the jazz world but maintains a reputation as a boundary-defying innovator.

“I love getting out of my comfort zone,” Marsalis said in a recent telephone interview. “My dad would always talk about how it’s better to know things than to not know things. The era of specialization that started showing up in the ‘80s was more about an individual being an expert at a specific thing.

“That’s very important in brain surgery,” he continued. “In music it just creates an ideological monotony that might be commercially successful but is very stifling. I’ve been doing this for 40 years and I’m still engaged and excited about going to work.”

No limits

Marsalis, who was born and raised in New Orleans, Louisiana, made his major label recording debut alongside younger brother Wynton and their dad on the 1982 album, “Fathers & Sons” (Columbia). The label released his proper solo debut, “Scenes in the City” (1984). He has since released dozens of albums in jazz, classical and other realms as a band leader, and been a guest performer on hundreds of albums.

From 1985 to 1999, Marsalis toured and recorded with Sting. He has since shared the stage with the Grateful Dead, Bela Fleck, the Dave Matthews Band and other acts. Marsalis had a brief stint as band leader for “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno” from 1992 to 1995. In 2008, he toured the United States with Philharmonia Brasileira under the direction of Gil Jardim. He wrote the music for the 2010 Broadway Revival of “Fences” by August Wilson.

Recent releases from Marsalis display his continued versatility. There is “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (Music from the Netflix Film) from 2020 and “The Secret Between the Shadow and the Soul” with his quartet and “Saxophone Concerto, Bass Drum Concerto” with Gabriel Prokofiev and the Ural Philharmonic Orchestra, both from 2019.

New musical connections

Marsalis is particularly excited about another very different project, a recent commission to write new material based on Hungarian folk music.

“We didn’t do the normal thing of trying to turn Hungarian folk tunes into American jazz songs and taking long solos,” he said. “We hired six Hungarian musicians and integrated them into the group. It’s not new but there are so many things now that are bastardizations of actual things yet presented as being authentic. I generally wasn’t a fan of that and the more I listened to recordings of Hungarian folk music, the more I realized we couldn’t do it service unless we did it with people who knew what they were doing.

“I listened to a lot of this music for about eight months and then I started hearing songs in their style and I started writing them,” Marsalis continued. “I sent the songs to them. It was all a great learning experience for the guys because we suddenly had to play a style of music that’s not our own. It was a lot of fun to make. I don’t have an idea when it’s coming out but it’s ready to go.”

Planting roots

Marsalis lived in New York for 22 years broken up by 2½ years in L.A. during his time with “The Tonight Show.” For the past two decades, he has called Durham, North Carolina home.

“I love New York,” Marsalis said. “It’s still one of the greatest cities in the world. I just didn’t feel like living there. My brother is in New York City. He’ll never leave there but I had just had enough of the New York City life and the L.A. life, and I was at a place in my career where I didn’t need to live in New York. Durham is as far south as my ex was willing to go and that worked for me.

“I’ve been here 20 years now and it’s just a great place to live,” he continued. “It’s not as stress-filled and the prices were considerably more reasonable. Now, a lot of people from the East Coast have taken up on my idea and moved here so the prices are starting to go up again but it’s still nice. The weather is more temperate, there’s more open space and the musicians aren’t as openly competitive with one another as they can be in the cities.”



Power of four

Marsalis is presently focused on dates with the Branford Marsalis Quartet, which formed in the mid-1980s. The current lineup is Joey Calderazzo (piano), who joined in 1999, Eric Revis (bass), who joined in 1997, and Justin Faulkner (drums), who joined in 2009. Despite his many sonic excursions, the saxophonist always seems to return to the four-piece format.

“With the right people, the quartet is like the ultimate form of expression of jazz for me,” Marsalis said. “It allows us to be more like a chamber group with the right people and I have the right people. We love each other and we love playing. I’m always looking forward to playing with the guys wherever it is.”

Because of the decades of work together, the Branford Marsalis Jazz Quartet pulls from a deep well of material on stage. Every show is a distinct experience.

“When you’re playing music that’s outside of the traditional commercial sphere, there’s not the expectation to play the hits,” Marsalis said. “We play whatever we want to play. We have some songs we’re working on, and we’ll play those. We have other songs but because we don’t have hit records we don’t have to worry about songs from previous records. Nobody is going to start yelling out for us to play ‘In the Crease’ so we don’t worry about it.

“Popular culture is more of an affirming thing,” he continued. “Like, this is the artist of the year. This is the best band in the world, and I want to celebrate the fact I’m part of the people who like it. People that come to jazz concerts are serious about jazz and I like that because we can play many different styles and periods of jazz. We can find something the audience will like and we can find things we like. We just show up, play to the best of our ability and have a great time doing it.”

Contact this contributing writer at 937-287-6139 or donthrasher100@gmail.com.


Who: Dayton Live presents Branford Marsalis Quartet

Where: Victoria Theatre, 138 N. Main St., Dayton

When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday, March 18

Cost: $29-$79

More info: 937-228-3630 or www.daytonlive.org

Artist info: www.branfordmarsalis.com

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