"People hate solos" - Branford Marsalis

Note: This interview originally took place in 2015 and is published here on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of Enjoy Jazz. The statements and references made in the interview refer to this date.


The situation could have come from a surreal film, Branford Marsalis, multiple Grammy winner and eldest scion of the most influential contemporary jazz clan, sits completely serene backstage and awaits his interviewer over a glass of red wine. What's left for him to do: his tour schedule sends him from Hungary via Germany to Turkey and finally to Spain in just four days. A Mozart opera is playing on the tablet PC at quite a considerable volume. She runs through the entire conversation and encourages the saxophonist to sing along again and again. One could speak of multitasking – or of the fact that this man needs a lot of stimuli fired at the same time in order to be at his best. His razor-sharp mind is just as overwhelming as his kindness. A fan who has cheated his way through the labyrinth of the concert hall to the dressing room for an autograph is asked to come back in twenty minutes. He should get his autograph. I guess that's what you call relaxed. Perhaps he relaxed a little too much for a short time, however, during his first solo saxophone concert in San Francisco's Grace Cathedral, which is now available on CD – to the preservation of which, by the way, Duke Ellington made a decisive contribution in the 1960s. Because when Marsalis listened to the tapes of the recording, he asked the sound engineer to jump to "Body and soul". Whereupon the saxophonist, both amused and astonished, had to realize: The piece did not exist at all. Instead, he had accidentally played Hoagy Carmichael's standard "Stardust" twice. He had immersed himself in a world in which the choice of pieces became a secondary matter.

Her family is something of a brand in today's jazz. Does this entail a special responsibility?

BM: With all due respect, I think that's complete nonsense. I hear this a lot. If you ask me, that's baseless. Of course, Wynton has achieved a certain popularity and presence, for example through television appearances and successful big band projects. And I'm sure I've been involved in a whole series of different projects. But it's not as if we're constantly traveling the world to demonstrate our point of view or to convert others. You really can't call it a brand.

Nevertheless, you have influenced quite a few musicians.

BM: If that's the case, I consider it a great honor. But the only responsibility I feel because you asked for it is to be as musically sincere as possible. It's always about musical sincerity. For me, entertainment does not mean hiding behind one's humor or intellect as if behind a mask, but on the contrary, going on stage and tearing this mask off one's face in front of everyone and exclaiming: Here I am! And sometimes that includes giving interviews that make people think: Why is he saying something like that? Because that's exactly how I feel about it.

You have been involved in so many projects, is there such a thing as a personal interim balance?

BM: I got a very clear idea of what jazz should be and what it shouldn't be. But that doesn't mean that I don't have respect for musicians who see things differently. That's what I have. Because we're all fighting in the same arena. Unfortunately, this is not the case in all areas of life. For example, I miss that in politics. It should be possible among his peers to say: "Hey, you're the worst politician of all time, but come on, let's go have a beer." I, for one, respect every musician; no matter how well-known or unknown he is, simply because he is in the same field as me. Respect should always be the least you can expect from each other.

There were a lot of collaborations with them outside of jazz.

BM: As petty as it sounds, I've never collaborated with anyone. For me, collaboration means a misunderstood kind of equality. I could list many records with such collaborations, where one does what he does well and the other does what he does well, but there is one thing they don't do: communicate with each other, but I have always tried to take a step back in such projects and play the music as authentically as possible. What I play in a jazz solo, I can't play when I'm playing with the Grateful Dead . It just doesn't work. There are bootlegs from the Grateful Dead with jazz musicians playing exactly what they always play – only here the effect completely fizzles out. Wrong decision. When I play with Sting, I have to try to play the way his music sounds. When I play classical music, I have to choose a tone that is appropriate for this music. This is sometimes difficult, but very rewarding.

Improvisation is generally considered to be constitutive of jazz. Now you are quoted in the liner notes to the new CD as saying that people are not interested in solos at all, they are interested in the melody.

BM: I didn't express myself as diplomatically as it was written. In fact, I said: People hate solos. But perhaps it should really be phrased in a more neat way.

Could this be due to the fact that you often have to listen to complex solos several times before you recognize the melodic quality or storytelling in them? 

BM: But all musical storytelling starts with the melody. That's just it. How a good story starts with a specific image or theme to attract attention. Everything else in the book is based on this theme. Even the most surprising twist can be traced back to this in the end. It is a myth that jazz is based on improvisation. The problem in jazz is that the training places so much emphasis on the harmonic aspect and neglects the melodic aspect of it. A solo that is not based on the melody will never be able to tell an interesting story .

It's more in the direction of musical mathematics...

BM: Do you know what such a non-melody-based solo is? A collection of technical data and information. We make everything far too complicated in jazz today. If I'm standing in front of a microwave and want to warm up something, I don't want to have to read a dissertation about the possible physical problems of microwave technology beforehand. That's absurd. Microwaves work

Yes, quite simply. Press the button and the food will get hot. That's all people need to know about microwaves. And music is no different. People have to be able to say: I like this song or I don't like it. If they need to know why they like him, then they don't like him anymore anyway. And that's exactly the problem with today's jazz: As a listener, you first have to know why it's good.

But doesn't this realization frustrate her students?

BM: Some, definitely. They then wrestle very much with themselves. But there's nothing I can do about it. He has to go through that. What I offer them as a way out is to keep in mind the solos of the 40s, which were always based on melody. That was the success of Charlie Parker's solos. And basically: improvisation already existed in the Baroque. Take a look at what a harpsichord player does in a baroque orchestra. He only works with a lead sheet. I was on tour with a baroque ensemble and I tell them that I have rarely learned more about music and improvisation in such a short time. What makes jazz so unique has nothing to do with improvisation is the consistent use of blue notes and the swing beat. And contemporary jazz usually doesn't use any of these elements. And if you still want to know why he is not successful, then my answer is: exactly because of this.

Against this background, how do you see your role?

BM: Through my work at the school, which is more socially motivated, but also through my concerts and records, I try to help build up a genuine, historically understanding jazz clientele. You hear so much about it today that jazz can only be saved through innovation. But I just want to; that people come to my concerts and listen to jazz. 

Sonny Rollins recently told me that jazz can't be anything other than political.

BM: I don't think music can be political. I remember these arguments very well from the Amnesty International tours with Sting and Peter Gabriel in 1988. But I am very much of the opinion that a musician can and perhaps even should be political. But today's jazz musicians are incredibly apolitical. The question of politicization came up in the 1960s, when Roger Daltrey, for example, sang "We can change the world". But in reality, we're just making music. You can't change the world with that. A song will never trump a weapon. Music will never create a revolution. Hunger, oppression, yes, but no song. It may be elevated to the anthem of a movement as an accompaniment, but it only reflects the true reasons that trigger an action. And because you mentioned Sonny. He is exactly what I mean by a political musician or person. And of course you can hear that in his music. But that was already the case with Beethoven. It will always be passion that drives good music. Many jazz musicians prefer to be mental geniuses and forget the emotional. That's why their music doesn't reflect anything political, it's just highly intellectual. And that's not the kind of music I prefer. So I agree with Sonny to the extent that music should be political, but you can't do that if the musicians are rather apolitical. I don't mean by political music that it is no longer attractive to people who have a different political opinion than I do. I believe that music should still stand for something today than theoretical and technical brilliance.

And what could that be?

BM: Passion, feelings, humanity – in other words, not just dry information based on a mathematical system that is as perfectly defined as possible.

They have just played and released their first solo saxophone concerto. How did you prepare for this?

BM: Yes, that's right. It was my first solo concert. And of course, the preparation was very different from what it would have been ten years ago, because my whole vocabulary has become much better. I've listened to some solo recordings, especially Sonny Rollins'. You run the risk of getting into a kind of repetition loop when playing solo. And I personally would find that boring.

They have been playing together with their current quartet for many years. What makes this quartet special for you?

BM: Quite simply, the common goal of making a song sound as good as possible. We don't use songs as a vehicle to make the bass or saxophone sound particularly good, for example. Only if the song itself sounds good in its entirety can you move an audience. I've often heard jazz musicians refer to songs as vehicles – I don't know what for; maybe for a solo. But: A song should never be a vehicle. A song is a song, and nothing else.