Branford Marsalis - Following Shorter steps


The Scottish National Jazz Orchestra could hardly have wished for a better spokesman for its latest project than the man who will take the stage as featured soloist with the orchestra this weekend to pay tribute to the great saxophonist and composer Wayne Shorter. When asked what makes Shorter’s often enigmatic music attractive to him as a musician, Branford Marsalis gives a reply that will lend SNJO’s marketing effort just the lift it needs.


“Despite the harmonic complexity in his music, Shorter's music has beautiful melodies that you can follow as a casual listener,” says Marsalis, before adding the line that the floating audience needs to hear: “One doesn't have to be a jazz fanatic to appreciate his music.”


Now fifty-three, Marsalis, the oldest of four musical brothers from New Orleans, has been following Shorter’s music since he was a teenage fan of the band Shorter co-led with keyboard innovator Joe Zawinul through the 1970s and into the mid-1980s, Weather Report. He could even be said to have followed directly in Shorter’s footsteps, having played saxophone, as Shorter did, with the great jazz finishing school that was drummer Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, and although he played alto in that band, he took on the Shorter role on tenor and soprano as his trumpeter brother Wynton forged his own reputation by following the classic Miles Davis Quintet blueprint after the brothers left Blakey.


Following Shorter into the Jazz Messengers, albeit some twenty years after the older man had left to join Miles Davis, wasn’t quite the big deal that you might expect for someone who was an avowed admirer. But then, Marsalis was still only twenty-one at the time and despite having grown up with a jazz piano-playing father and having studied at Southern University and at Berklee School of Music, he still had much to discover about jazz history.


“I’d been a Weather Report fanatic and I loved Wayne’s Native Dancer album, which he recorded while he was still with Weather Report,” says Marsalis. “But when I joined Blakey’s band I was a converted R&B sax player. I was aware of Mr. Shorter being a former member of the band but had not yet heard any recordings documenting his time with the Messengers. I was not conscious of his legacy of greatness, but I didn't really understand it at that time.”


This would soon change. In the 1980s, while he was adding an enviable list of experiences to his C.V. – he toured with Herbie Hancock’s Miles Davis Quintet-styled V.S.O.P ll and recorded with Davis himself on the 1984 album Decoy before incurring brother Wynton’s wrath (they soon made up) by joining Sting’s Dream of the Blue Turtles band – Marsalis delved deeply into Shorter’s earlier years. Shorter’s first recordings as a band leader for the VeeJay label, which have recently been repackaged as the Beginnings 4CD set, and his extraordinary fertile 1960s output for Blue Note Records, recorded while he was a fully involved member of Miles Davis’s band, became a source of fascination and inspiration for the twentysomething Marsalis.


The two saxophonists share common traits. As well as them both writing chapters in the Jazz Messengers story, Marsalis and Shorter have both contributed to pop and rock music – Marsalis playing with Sting and Shorter adding classic saxophone passages to Steely Dan and a long series of Joni Mitchell albums – and Marsalis acknowledges the now eighty year old Shorter’s continuing powers as one of jazz’s great creative talents with clear reverence.


For the concerts this weekend he has been happy to let SNJO director Tommy Smith select the programme, bowing, as is his modus operandi, to the director’s knowledge of both the band’s capabilities and its market. “It also forces me to learn a lot of stuff,” he says, “as opposed to mastering a narrow corridor of music.”


Not that anyone’s likely to cast accusations of narrow interest at Marsalis. As the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra’s musicians were looking over their parts for the Shorter tribute in advance of rehearsals with their featured soloist, Marsalis was revisiting the classical music repertoire in three weekend concerts with the Colorado Symphony Orchestra in Denver before flying to Scotland.


Moving successfully between styles in a way that has seen him working with his own jazz quartet, experiment with hip hop in Buckshot LeFonque, play the blues with John Lee Hooker and perform a saxophone sonata with classical composer Sally Beamish is, he says, a matter of listening. “You have to listen to each style intimately enough to know what it’s supposed to sound like. When you listen issues with phrasing and sound come naturally and your main focus is then on the repertoire itself.”


From The Herald, September 25, 2013.


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