Saxophonist Branford Marsalis has played in settings from classical to pop, and with musicians as diverse as Art Blakey and Jerry Garcia. He recently teamed up with Chicago vocalist Kurt Elling on the album Upward Spiral.
Marsalis joined Morning Shift to talk about his music ahead of a gig with his quartet and Elling at Chicago’s Symphony Center.
Why did you ask Kurt Elling to join you on the project?
Branford Marsalis: His voice has so much color. It’s adaptable and he changes with the emotion of the song.
When you’re in the studio, how do you know which take is the one?
Marsalis: We just know. We never do more than two takes per song. If Kirk isn’t feeling it, I’ll give him one more chance (laughter). We don’t spend a lot of time fixing mistakes. Mistakes are part of the process.
What’s the difference in ear training versus eye training, and can you teach it?
Marsalis: I think it can be. I think relying on or calling things when musicians do it it’s a cop-out. It’s an excuse to justify your certain lack of ability. What my parents imparted on me is: Progress occurs when you’re able to identify your weaknesses and correct them. Whereas oftentimes in our country people tend to double down on their strengths — it’s like a diversion tactic. You even see little kids do it.
There’s a book I read once in which it describes how people like to believe that you’re born with a finite amount of intelligence or skill that God gives out to humans and this person, of course, is one of those people. And then there are other people who believe that you can learn anything. And they’re more curious and eager to chase after the things that they aren’t good at. People who believe in their ability are more defensive when they are exposed to things that they are less comfortable in and they choose to diminish the importance of those things.
Tell us about some of your more embarrassing performances and what drove you in the direction of classical music?
Marsalis: When you get to a certain age, even if you’re good at something, you start to decline. I felt like I needed something that was going to make me feel vulnerable again — to get better or even stay consistent. And there are piles of records to support what I’m talking about. When you listen to musicians who are now in their older years, and you’re saying, ‘Aw yea, they still have that thing — ’ no, they don’t. It’s like the honorific ‘he or she has been there’ but songs get slower … but then you have a guy like Arthur Rubinstein who played piano into his nineties and it sounded great because he practiced all the time.
It’s hard to practice jazz. You learn the body of work — other people’s solos — and over time you just play. I needed something that was gonna really put the pain on me and boy, that (Classical) it.
Tell us about learning your first piece of classical music?
Marsalis: You practice three hours a day for three months and then you go back on stage and it’s like you haven’t practiced for 20 seconds. It was awesome. I mean not at the time but then you wake up the next day in a pile of sweat on the bed and think, wow. I’m getting better. I’m okay. I’m not as bad as I used to be. But when you hear the really great classical performers, you’ll be like, ‘Let’s be real … c’mon Branford’. But I’m getting better.
What’s some of the best advice you’ve received about playing the saxophone?
Marsalis: There are lots of great saxophonists out there. Several took me under their wing even though they’re younger than me. Harvey Patel, who helped with my posture, once told me, ‘You’re in the way of the instrument’. The saxophone is a marvelous instrument.
This interview was edited for clarity and brevity. Click play above to listen to the entire interview.