Today we are extremely excited to release the video for “Treat It Gentle” from the Branford Marsalis Quartet’s new release Four MFs Playin’ Tunes, out 8/7 on Marsalis Music. The song, featuring influence from the great Sidney Bechet, captures the recording process for the song while encompassing amazing performances from Marsalis, Justin Faulkner, Joey Calderazzo, and Eric Revis.
Moreover, we are bringing you an in-depth interview with Branford Marsalis to bring together the story of the album as well as his thoughts on jazz music today. Whether you agree with him or not, it’s hard to fight the sheer intellect and experience with which Marsalis speaks. Read on to delve into the alway engaging insights of Mr. Marsalis.
We are releasing your video for “Treat It Gentle” today. Can you tell me about the process of recording and how that song came together on the record?
It’s a song that I wrote last summer. I’d been listening to a bunch of Sidney Bechet and I just wrote it in my head. A couple of songs that we wanted to put on the record didn’t sound very good; they didn’t work out well. So I just said, “Oh, I’ve got this song that I wrote.” They asked where it was, but I hadn’t written it out so I took 20-minutes and wrote out the changes for them.
You are very focused on the songs with this record. How important was the songwriting process and reaching the emotion with each song?
Well the songwriting isn’t really important; the song is important. I don’t have this obsession with writing my own material. A lot of guys want to be called composers, you know. But if you’ve ever read a score by Mahler or Wagner, you would know for a fact that I don’t compose, I write tunes. Those fuckers compose. Trust me.
But the priority for me was to find songs that I thought were really good songs. At that point, you need to figure out what the emotional template for that song is. Then we represent that in our playing. So it’s not finding songs to match an emotion, it’s hearing what the song requires to be successful.
How did it feel bringing Justin Faulkner into the studio? Although he has played with you for a while, it was his first time recording with you guys on, right?
It was the same as it feels on the gigs. He showed up and played. We didn’t make a big deal out of it and neither did he.
Having been in jazz for a while, what do you see as driving the music forward culturally?
I don’t know. I can’t speak for all of those guys. You know, a lot of guys that are playing music, it’s more like an individual thing. It’s not a group thing. It’s personal innovation, you know. A lot of the music that gets the media attention sounds very strange to me.
Why is that?
Because it just seems detached from the culture that created jazz. And it seems like the improvisational aspects of it are the most important aspects, not really focusing on the group aspect or the concepts of swinging or grooving. And a lot of the improvisation is repetitive. They’re playing the same things over and over again. The people judging it don’t have the level of sophistication, in terms of listening to music, to sort that out. They don’t hear it with specificity; they hear it like most people listen to music. Most people listen to music in general. The music makes them feel a certain way. And I think that a lot of the people that choose to play jazz and write jazz are really smart first of all. They seem to exist on the fringes of modern society, not really on the inside of it. Like when I was in high school, we didn’t have a jazz band. But in terms of the social strata, the jazz guys that play today have the personalities of the guys that you’d most likely find in the chess club or glee club. They’re kind of out there on the fringes and they brag about it because they think it’ cool.
I think that it’s actually self-defeating though. Charlie Parker and those guys didn’t act like that. They didn’t think like that.
As someone in your position, do you try to hold down the jazz tradition then?
No I’m not trying to hold it down, I’m participating in it. And it’s my choice. I speak very forcefully about what I believe in. People say like, “Oh they’re trying to bring jazz back a hundred years.” Look, in one way it would be nice because people would actually like it. But the thing that I understand about all music, not just jazz, is that music is about people whether the people know it or not. When your music is about something other than the technical aspects of it, you stand a higher chance of achieving some sort of success. When your music becomes about mathematical extrapolations and musical permutations based on such and such, that all sounds cute, but when people buy records they don’t give a damn about any of that. They don’t. If you ever listen to Led Zepplin, they have a song called “The Crunge.” It was a spoof on James Brown and it was in 9/8. None of my friends who liked it knew it was in 9/8. They just liked the song.
I think that too often now, people feel that they have to go to school and take a class to listen to a jazz concert. The musicians seem fairly aloof on stage as well. A large majority of an audience that comes to hear any live performance are coming to either participate in it or to see it, but rarely are they there to hear it with the exception of classical music. Not even that though. You go to the Met Opera, which I used to do with some regularity, and as the curtain opens people applaud the set design or they boo the set design or they moan and mumble about the set design. I’m there to hear the music, so I don’t really give a damn what the set design is. But it wasn’t lost on me that for the majority of the people there, set design plays an important aspect because they come to see music and to hear tangentially.
If you go to a jazz concert and you watch guys standing on stage, they look disinterested when they play. When they’re not soloing they kind of look off to the side, they look down, they look at their nails. Their heads are down. So if you have a late person coming in that doesn’t understand the technical complications of the music, what are they to derive from that? “Shit they’re not even into it, why should I be into it?”
So do you think jazz musicians today are misrepresenting themselves?
No they are representing themselves [laughs]. That are representing themselves because that’s what they really believe. I just think that they are wrong.
Bringing it back to your new record, you quoted Art Blakey in discussing the intensity of the music. How important was intensity for you on this record?
We try to bring it to every record. It’s just that, like early in the ‘80s we were trying to bring it and we failed because we weren’t ready. But you don’t stop doing it because you fail. You keep trying. When we recorded A Love Supreme with my quartet, that was intensity times a thousand. It’s just one of those things that I believe in. Audiences respond to intensity.
Do you try to instill intensity into your musicians or do you pick musicians that bring intensity?
You write songs and select songs where the only way for the songs to really work is for them to have intensity. When they don’t have intensity, it doesn’t work. At that point they either step it up or you replace them. This is what everyone does. All musicians instinctively pick material that makes them sound their best.
Interview by Eric Sandler