Branford Marsalis: Chasing a runaway 'Trane

The saxophonist Branford Marsalis tells Martin Longley why he has taken on John Coltrane's visionary masterpiece A Love Supreme
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Branford Marsalis is sitting in the coffee space of New York's Sterling Sound rec-ording studios. His hands are flat on the table, his mind focused, his mouth primed to set off on a speech about the current state of music, jazz in particular, and art in general. His brother Wynton may have the reputation for controversy, but the saxophonist is equally opinionated, with a markedly more modernist approach to the music.

Branford Marsalis is sitting in the coffee space of New York's Sterling Sound rec-ording studios. His hands are flat on the table, his mind focused, his mouth primed to set off on a speech about the current state of music, jazz in particular, and art in general. His brother Wynton may have the reputation for controversy, but the saxophonist is equally opinionated, with a markedly more modernist approach to the music.

Even though he's the eldest of pianist Ellis Marsalis's offspring, Branford appears youthful, preferring Hip-Hop casual to studiously be-suited. He is about to sit in on a mastering session for saxophonist Miguel Zenon's new album, to be released on his own Marsalis Music imprint.

Branford was signed to Columbia for nearly two decades before realising the best survival technique was to found his own outlet. Late last year, he released the evocative Eternal, an album devoted to ballads. Many such albums are mellow and bland, but Eternal's bittersweet mix of desolation and ecstasy, the music swirling with a sense of barely-concealed tension, captures the secret of romantic wistfulness.

Branford's latest release is a DVD and CD of his quartet's storming live performance of A Love Supreme, recorded at Amsterdam's Bimhuis Club. Filmed on the second night of their residency, the cameras prowl around in a murk of tasteful lighting, at the service of the music rather than distracting with quick MTV-style edits. Included on the DVD is a lengthy conversation between Branford and multi-instrumentalist Alice Coltrane, John's widow and collaborator.

"It all happened by accident," Branford recalls. "We were in Paris, and I got into this debate with a writer there. He was saying, what do you think of European jazz? He went into this long-winded thing about America not being an inspiration any more. He was basically saying that jazz can be whatever we want it to be. I said, look man, I'd just like to hear them play something like A Love Supreme. And he says, I haven't heard you play A Love Supreme. I said, well, you comin' to the concert tonight? All right. You'll hear it. So, I tell the guys in the band, we're playing A Love Supreme tonight, and they're, like, cool. We played it before. Nuthin' special. But this time it just clicked, as a group. It was magical. We were exhausted at the end of it. I bit through my lip and didn't realise until the next day. There was dried blood all over the mouthpiece. One of the ways that jazz musicians have gone wrong is that we no longer address the physical reality of playing as a group. It was great to be in a moment where we had transcended that physical threshold to the point that I could bite through my lip, and not even realise it because of the zone that we were in. That was when I made the decision that we should record it."

They performed the work a couple of times at New York's Village Vanguard. "It's not the kind of piece you play gratuitously. It's too difficult! That's why people avoid it. Everything else you play pales into insignificance."

"But I don't buy into the sacrosanct bullshit," he sneers, pondering why few players dare to approach this work. "It's not a coincidence to me that the majority of the Coltrane that is embraced is the stuff from the Atlantic period, because it's the music that can be easily codified. I don't buy it, I think they're just afraid of the piece. That's why we went after it. I didn't know whether we had the stuff to play it, but you only live once. I'm not going to be a punk and hide in a closet. 'Well, I'm only interested in my own music.' All these catchphrases that you hear, they're just metaphors for fear of being exposed as a person who is not thorough enough in research, not thorough enough in an understanding of history."

Marsalis now has a steely-eyed view of his place in the jazz firmament. He looks back on youthful folly, rejecting where necessary, applauding himself where he thinks it's deserved. "We did a version of A Love Supreme in 1991. It was a failure. I didn't know enough about the blues.

"Coltrane grew up in Hamlet, North Carolina, an immensely segregated small town. In a place like that, you can assume that every thing that has to do with black America can be found in a one-mile strip: the houses, the juke joints, the church. It's hot as bejeezus, so the windows are open. As a kid, if you play on the street you can't help but hear whatever's going on. This is before clubs were sent to zoned districts. There was a bar right next to our house. They'd swing the doors open and the majority of the people are outside on the street, and the music is coming out of the door... You'd hear the church music, the blues, the gospel shit, and it just became a part of you. We're now in a period where people call themselves jazz musicians and they don't have any relationship to that experience. We can't go back in time, though. That's not what I'm suggesting."

The usual Marsalis album gameplan is to mix standards and original compositions, with writing duties divided up between the leader, pianist Joey Calderazzo, bassist Eric Revis and drummer Jeff 'Tain' Watts. This is a stable line-up that enjoys an intuitive rapport, built up over many years.

Later that night, Marsalis began another week at the Village Vanguard. The quartet launched straight into a ferociously intense opening statement, with Branford's extended solo tackling every intimate corner of the cramped space.

Marsalis is amused when some audience members have a problem dealing with the fact that the quartet laugh a lot when they're performing. "I have no compunction to give them a visual aid. Some people are put off that we act like a bunch of asses up there. Some people are frustrated, because they're coming to hear African-American classical music."

'A Love Supreme: Live' is out now. Branford Marsalis is this afternoon's 'Jazz Legend', on BBC Radio 3

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