Swing Time: Branford Marsalis on New Album, Playing with the Grateful Dead, Jazz Fest and More

Jeff Tamarkin on May 18, 2019
Swing Time: Branford Marsalis on New Album, Playing with the Grateful Dead, Jazz Fest and More

Branford Marsalis plays with Dead & Company at LOCKN’ Festival 2018 (photo by John Patrick Gatta)

The longtime New Orleans ambassador to jam-nation steps out with a new studio album just in time for Jazz Fest.

Ask most artists to explain the meaning of an album title, and you’ll likely get a long, drawn-out dissertation on what it’s all about—or something.

But ask Branford Marsalis to explain what lies behind the name The Secret Between the Shadow and the Soul, his latest release, and you get this: “Nothing, to be honest. I just liked it. I don’t have lyrics in my songs, so titles don’t have to have meaning.”

That kind of forthrightness is not only integral to Marsalis’ conversations but also to his music. The 58-year-old saxophonist/composer/ bandleader has never been one to sand down the edges. Whether he’s fronting the Branford Marsalis Quartet—featuring pianist Joey Calderazzo and bassist Eric Revis, each with 20 years in the group, and drummer Justin Faulkner—serving as a member of Sting’s group, leading The Tonight Show band for Jay Leno from 1992-95 or partaking in any of his other innumerable projects, Branford Marsalis puts his entire, authentic self forward, and nothing less.

“The most important thing is how we play it,” he says about all of the music he’s made since emerging in the early-‘80s. “If you play with people who are continually listening to music and continually finding ways to grow musically, and you have a shared vocabulary, then the music has a place to go.”

It was Marsalis’ uncompromising attitude and open-ended vision that inspired Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh to ask him to sit in with the band at a March 1990 gig at Nassau Coliseum. Marsalis jammed with the Dead on a “Bird Song” for the ages and hit it off so well with them musically that he was asked to stick around for the second set. He returned to the Dead’s stage several times into 1994 and has since turned up at post-Garcia gigs with The Dead, Furthur and, as recently as 2018’s Lockn’, Dead & Company.

“The songs tend to go to fewer places than they did when Jerry was in—a more familiar place. In some ways, that’s good,” he says with that characteristic honesty, noting that he enjoys playing with Dead & Company bassist Oteil Burbridge and keyboardist Jeff Chimenti as well as the original GD members. “The music has this amoeba-like feeling to it, where it expands and contracts, continually. It’s not firm. But I think that it’s also good to play in the box, especially when you have a lot of information, because you self-edit the information and get to the point.”

Of course, guesting with rockers is only a tiny part of what he’s done over the past few decades. Marsalis has released more than 30 albums as a leader, mostly falling into the jazz category, racking up 16 Grammy nominations thus far, and taken home three. He’s contributed music to several film soundtracks and worked in the theatrical world, dabbled in classical music and served as an educator. Throughout all of these endeavors, the one constant has been Marsalis’ dedication to his quartet. Where many jazz artists are restless, constantly playing with different musicians rather than maintaining a steady group, Marsalis doesn’t see any reason for that.

“There seems to be a requirement among jazz people that doesn’t exist in other mediums,” he says. “The most important thing about playing jazz for most of these guys is their solo. Those types of people tend to want to work with different musicians because the playing style is very one-dimensional. But for musical reasons, it seems axiomatic that you would want to play with the same musicians. There’s an intuition that comes through repeated levels of cognition. That’s the advantage of playing with people, provided that the musicians are serious about playing music, more so than they are about playing their instrument really well.”

That camaraderie is evident throughout The Secret Between the Shadow and the Soul, which includes interpretations of pieces by pianists Andrew Hill and Keith Jarrett, new compositions by Calderrazo and Revis and one by Marsalis himself. “I don’t fancy myself a composer. I don’t need that honorific to like myself,” he says. “I’ve always been about playing songs that are great, not songs that are mine. Sometimes they’re songs that are mine that happen to be pretty good, but I don’t want a record with seven of my songs. I want a record with seven songs that I think have great melodies.”

The Branford Marsalis Quartet will have plenty of opportunities to get to know one another even better as they hit the tour circuit this spring, after which Branford heads to Australia, where he will play several dates with the Australian Chamber Orchestra. In between, there’s a stop at the annual New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, where he, along with his brothers, will pay tribute to the family patriarch, pianist Ellis (who is also scheduled to perform).

Not surprisingly, the Louisiana native has a few things to say about Jazz Fest, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. “[Jazz Fest] was much better for me when I was a kid because it was what it says it was: It was the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival,” he says. “There was a zydeco tent, a local musicians’ tent, arts and crafts, killer fucking food and not so many people. What you didn’t have when I was a kid was 20,000-30,000 people coming to hear one group. Now it’s Jazz Fest. Somebody asked me: ‘Why don’t you start a jazz club?’ I said, ‘If I started a jazz club, it would be probably the greatest jazz club in the last 50 years and it would close in six months, because you can’t run a jazz club outside of New York City that would just be jazz.’ I’m not opposed to what [Jazz Fest] has become, but I’m less likely to go because of what it has become.”

Nonetheless, he’s looking forward to getting together with the family. “My dad is 84 years old. I’m going to play what he plays. It’s almost like when I’m playing with Dead & Company: I play what the guys play. I’m not going to march in and say, ‘Guys, I got tunes. Let’s play my shit.’ We’re gonna make this an easy gig; we’re gonna have fun. We’re not going to be up there sweating.”

This article originally appears in the April/May 2019 issue of Relix. For more features, interviews, album reviews and more, subscribe here.