Branford Marsalis to play saxy show at Youngstown next week

Greg Schwartz

Branford Marsalis wants to hug each and every one of his fans who see his show.

Credit: Greg Schwartz

Ohio jazz fans will receive a special treat next week when world-renowned saxophonist Branford Marsalis brings his quartet to the Stambaugh Auditorium at Youngstown State University for a show on Wednesday.

Some might consider Youngstown an off-beat tour stop for such an accomplished musician, but Marsalis is fond of visiting college jazz programs to help teach the next generation of musicians — the concert will be preceded by a jazz masters class that Marsalis will conduct in the afternoon.

The Branford Marsalis Quartet’s latest release, Eternal, is an album of ballads, but that doesn’t mean the YSU show won’t be lively.

“We don’t tour behind albums like rock bands do, this isn’t ‘The Eternal Tour,’” said Marsalis in a phone interview earlier this week. Keeping true to the philosophy of jazz improvisation, the band does not go out on tour with a specific repertoire in mind. “We play what we think is appropriate for the venue we’re at,” said Marsalis.

Eternal’s title track is something special for Marsalis — it’s an epic and dynamic song composed in honor of his wife, who had been clamoring for such a tune. He said it was relatively easy to compose under such spousal pressure.

“It didn’t take a long time to write. It took years to start, but then it came out in about an hour.”

Now in his mid-40s, Marsalis has just about done it all in his career — he’s won several Grammys, has played with diverse talents such as the Grateful Dead and Sting, put in a stint leading Jay Leno’s “Tonight Show” Band in the early ’90s and has recorded albums in all manner of genres. Marsalis’ catalog ranges in style from traditional jazz trios to the rock/hip-hop/funk/jazz hybrid known as Buckshot Lefonque, a group Marsalis put together and released two albums in the mid-’90s.

When asked if the innovative Buckshot project was guided by any desire to reach a wider audience, Marsalis said it was no different than any of his other projects.

“It was all about the music,” he said.

Many musicians claim to be “all about the music,” but Marsalis truly lives the credo. While he has experimented with more commercial directions, it’s always been guided by a quest for new musical frontiers rather than popular aspirations.

Marsalis’ musical focus leaves him little desire to play the standard publicity game required of pop music. When Buckshot scored a minor hit in Amsterdam, Marsalis found himself perplexed by subsequent interviews.

“We went over there and an interviewer asked, ‘What’s your favorite color?’ I was dumbfounded … I just made up something silly, like magenta … and then she asked, ‘Do you have anything to say to your fans?’ I said ‘Hello.’”

It’s not that Marsalis isn’t interested in conversing with his fans — he publishes his e-mail address in the liner notes of his albums — but as a no-nonsense straight shooter who is utterly devoid of pretense, he’s generally only interested in the music.

His uncanny ability to fit right into almost any musical format can wow even the most seasoned observers.

“One of the greatest things I’ve ever seen was to watch a man who’d never heard a note of The Grateful Dead walk onstage, listen to 10 seconds of a rock tune and then play it as if he’d been hearing it all his life,” said Grateful Dead spokesman Dennis McNally in a 2004 Raleigh News & Observer interview, regarding Marsalis’ legendary first guest appearance with the Grateful Dead in 1990. “He and Jerry (Garcia) were like the left hand and the right hand. It was one of the greatest shows ever.”

Marsalis still sits in with members of The Dead on occasion, but in 2002 he concluded that big cities and major labels were no longer conducive to his creative process, so he negotiated his release from Columbia Records, moved his family from New York City to North Carolina, and started his own label, Marsalis Music. The label focuses on jazz, but not exclusively.

It’s for “whatever music I feel is really creative and where the musicians’ focus is on the music,” says Marsalis.

When informed that The Dead’s bassist Phil Lesh is now 65 years old and queried about where he might see himself at that age, Marsalis responded, “I don’t know, in my mind I figure I’ll be doing something else by then.”

But with Marsalis being the consummate musician’s musician that he is, this reporter advises not to bet on it.

Contact Pop Arts guest writer and forum columnist Greg Schwartz at [email protected].