Interview: Branford Marsalis at San Bernardo Jazz Fest

Branford Marsalis and his quartet headlined the San Bernardo Jazz Fest in November 2014

Branford Marsalis and his quartet headlined the San Bernardo Jazz Fest in November 2015

Branford Marsalis is not known to mince words. So when the upstart Chilean jazz magazine Papeles de Jazz invited me to interview him, I know that he wouldn’t hesitate to share his first impressions of Chile in the midst of his first trip here. I managed to catch up with Marsalis after the gig, interviewing him in the band’s van on the way back to their hotel. The night before the concert, the quartet sat in with the Nicolas Vera Quartet at Thelonious—an event that I was very disappointed to have missed.

This is the original, lightly edited English transcript—the Spanish version will be published in the next edition of Papeles de Jazz later this year. (Para los que leen en castellano: esta entrevista se publicará en Papeles de Jazz en la proxima edición este año.)

So on a scale of 1 being this is just another gig to 10 being this is something I’ll never forget playing for these people. Where was tonight for you?

Five, probably. I mean I enjoyed them. There are certain places you go and the people seem to have an understanding of instrumental music because of the tradition—because of their own cultural traditions. That’s one of the funny things about England, there thing is all about words and so forth, and they don’t really have instrumental music, so they really are not keen on it, and when you play, you can feel that. It was nice to have a lot of people. They didn’t know who the hell we were. But I think the music caught them by surprise because modern jazz is played with almost no intensity whatsoever. And I think we play with so much on stage. And you know the guys were really charismatic. The young boys [drummer Justin Faulkner, pianist Samora Pinderhughes, and bassist Russell Hall] moved in. You know, for the people that come to see it, there’s something to see. We’re dressed nice. For the people that can hear, they had something to hear. So it was good. But, man, I’ve been doing this shit for 30 years. It ain’t Russia.

So, what’s Russia?

That was amazing. I mean particularly during communism because there wasn’t anything. But when you play in a country that has developed Dostoevsky and Tchaikovsky, Shostakovitch, Rimsky-Korsakov. I mean [that] shit’s not an accident.

Yeah, you were feeling that.

When you’re studying classical music, it was basically 2 big countries. It was Russia and there’s Germany. Or the greater Germany, the greater Austrian Hungarian Empire, which includes Poland and Hungary and the Czech Republic. All the music comes from there. Of course there were the Italians, but that was another different thing. It was almost like that shit wasn’t really representative of Italy. Because they respond to Opera and nothing else. But the Germans have a keen relationship with instrumental music. And if you’re playing, particularly if the music is melodic. If it’s random they kind of go off. They responded to us in a way that surprised us. But then when you reflect on it, after the concert, well it’s Russia. They do that for “bad dudes.” And you know, at that time, there wasn’t anything to do but listen to music or go to museums. TVs didn’t work. They didn’t have any pop music. So everybody went to concerts and all the concerts were free. Shit was a drag on one level. On the other level. You get to see and hear that Bolshoi. You go to the Ballet and you hear the Bolshoi orchestra for free?! So, yeah, that was a different thing. But that being said, this is my first time playing in Chile and I remember when we played in Buenos Aires, they went crazy. It wasn’t like they went celebrity crazy. They were just so into what we were doing. We were playing trio there. There wasn’t even a piano to help and they were so keen to what we were doing. It was really nice. South America’s got a cool vibe for music.

I noticed you were talking with [Chilean jazz saxophonist] Marcos Aldana after the gig. Had you guys crossed paths before?

No.

Because I know he was up in the states in the early 90s

I mean I know his daughter, [Melissa Aldana]. It was my first time meeting him. It was nice to meet him.

How did this gig come together? What’s the story?

There’s just 2 places, Chile and Argentina. I was told “you’re going,” and I said, “great.” So, last night was really fun.

At Thelonious. So, tell me about your night at Thelonious.

There was nobody there so it was great. People were there who wanted to be there.  There was no announcement. There weren’t a bunch of people coming to see the American guy or none of that shit. So we wound up playing with the local musicians. It was fun. They could play. And we played a couple of tunes by ourselves. Once the music gets to a certain level of heat, they were like “okay, we’ll leave this alone.” So we played a couple of songs and then at the end we played the blues so everyone could come back in and join. It was great. It’s nice when you play for people and they make eye contact. They’re not on stage trying to outplay you. We were just playing. You know because that’s the way I grew up and then moved to New York and everyone was trying to outplay me. What the fuck are you doing? This doesn’t work. It works in sports, but it doesn’t work in music because we’re all on the stage together and we’re supposed to be making music, not outplaying one another. It would be like if you had the shooting guard and the point guard and they’re all trying to score the most points. Those teams lose. They don’t win. Teams win when people understand their role. That didn’t happen here. We were just playing. And it was like a great thing. And some guys were really good players and some guys weren’t very good. So, what? They’re making music and that’s all that really matters.  So, I enjoyed it. I was completely wiped out so I didn’t stay long because we got here yesterday.

Yeah, that’s a long flight.

We got here yesterday and then I had a masterclass from 3-5 and then we left to go to the club at 10:30 and I was home at the hotel by 2. The young boys, they stayed out.

Justin was telling me a little about the rest of the night.

I remember those days. . . .

So, this group: I know you’ve been playing with Justin for a long time.

I don’t play with those other guys. They’re subs.

Is that for the whole tour?

It’s only for 2 more gigs. And then get back with Joey and Eric Revis in December. And record a record in December. We’re going to do it in New Orleans. We’re going to play in a club in New Orleans for 4 nights. Take 2 days off to rearrange and write shit.

That’s fantastic. There aren’t a lot of gigs where you get 4 nights in a row these days.

I know, it’s amazing. Yeah, I’m looking forward to it. Especially in my home town.  I never played there except [New Orleans] Jazz Fest, which is not the same as playing there.

So before the tour after you got the call from your people saying we’re going to South America, what were the impressions you had of Chile coming down here?

Didn’t know anything about Santiago. I know it’s the capital city. I know where Chile is on the map, but that’s not anything.

Well, it’s more than a lot of people.

But it doesn’t really mean anything. I remember the first time I went to Europe. I came back and my father was like, “what’d you do?” I said I went to the Eiffel Tower. He said, “that’s all you did? You didn’t do anything? What do you mean, ‘I went to the Eiffel Tower. I went to the Louvre.’ What’d you see?” I said, I saw Mona Lisa. “What else did you see?” Um, I really don’t remember. He said, “so you really didn’t go to the museum. You went there and watched the statue. That’s what you did in Paris. You didn’t come back with a recipe or any stories about meeting people. So basically you know as much about Paris as I do and I never left my house.” And I was 19. So, he really cured me of, “oh let’s go watch a building.” Like if the building’s there, great. But [I’m past] the idea that we’re going to fly to Chile and watch buildings and come back and say “We had a great time. We watched buildings.” It was great being in the club. Nobody really spoke English. So you gotta make it happen. In the hotel where we’re staying, no one really speaks English. You gotta make it happen. So you learn a few words. You learn things. The food is fantastic. You try to stay away from American shit. I know that seafood is the big thing here. I didn’t go to a fish restaurant. It is not going to happen now. But I needed to stay in the room today and practice. It was a push-up  to just relax. I knew it was going to be a long night. I wish we had played in Santiago. It would have been nice. Totally different audience.

There were 5,000 people there tonight. There was a lot going on. I was surprised how many people I know who came from the Santiago jazz scene to hear you guys.

That was nice. I wish they could have heard the real band, but…these guys are good.

I know you didn’t have a whole lot of expectations coming here, but was there anything that surprised you?

Yeah, I was surprised with how seamlessly the architecture integrates with the geography. It’s just a pet peeve of mine when you go to a place like Hawaii what exists does not mesh with the surroundings. So, it all seems out of place to me. The apartments, the way the apartments are designed [here], it has some kind of Inca shit. If you look at the way the pyramids are designed. It’s the same kind of design with the squares. And it really works with the geography. It doesn’t seem disjunct and out of place. And sometimes you go to places in warm climates, islands, all the architecture seems out of place. Not often. In the states they just never got that part right. They’re thinking more about function than aesthetics. But here they seemed to have embraced function and aesthetic. And all of the people seem reasonably happy here. The vibe downtown is fucking amazing. There is no angst. No aggression. It’s quiet. It’s like Tokyo. Tokyo has 12 million people, and you walk in the middle of downtown and it’s quiet. There’s positive people everywhere. The cars don’t make noise.  Nobody blows their horns. Yeah there’s cars going fast and everyone’s going crazy but it doesn’t have that angsty, the way it is in Sao Paolo, the angsty aggressive shit that you find in New York.  It doesn’t have that. And I enjoyed it.

Like the west coast?

Yeah.

The editors at Papeles de Jazz have been following some of the more genre-bending aspects of your career, and would like to know more about your take on that, both musically and ideologically. What does it mean and why is it important to be able to be open, style-wise?

I mean the reason it would be important is that it reminds me of being on the debate team. Whenever I had a debate with someone who wasn’t well read, I was going to eat their fucking lunch. Eat it all. They didn’t stand a chance because they were like saying the same things over and over again. They didn’t know how to expand. They didn’t know how to elucidate. Hell, I won arguments that I should have lost because it just sounded better. And it’s the same thing in music. What bores me about a lot of jazz that I hear is that all the musicians are working from a vocabulary that is extremely limited. The scale-based pattern-based based vocabulary. So all around the world, everybody sounds the same. No surprise. But when you start to listen to classical music it starts to change the way you hear sound. When I was Catholic, growing up, you still going to Baptist church, but it changed the way I heard sound. RnB changed the way I heard sound. In jazz, R&B, and other things, we don’t have the exact 1. We play around with 1. 1 and 2 and 3. In classical music it is the exact fucking one. So just to be able to do that–when I first starting learning that, I couldn’t. For two reasons. I couldn’t hit the absolute down beat. So it changes the way you hear music. But you can’t be insecure—most musicians tend to be really insecure, so they’re really afraid of sounding bad. I’ve been playing classical music for ten years and I have yet to have a concert where I actually sounded good on it. I am in the stage now where I sound less shitty than I used to, but not where I come out and play it and go “yeah, yeah, alright, cool.” But if I keep practicing and keep playing the gigs, that will come. But a lot of guys don’t have the mentality to do that because they’re so afraid of sounding bad. Which is always hilarious to me, because if a defenseman in the game last night created an own goal situation, he would be the most hated man in all of Chile. A musician makes a mistake, nobody gives a shit—nothing happens to you. You don’t lose your job, you don’t lose your house, they don’t take a finger for every wrong note. So we sit around and we obsess about the fear of making mistakes. You’re never penalized for making mistakes, it is all in our heads. We’ve created this insane psychosis that limits the styles of music we play, and the way you play, and the songs you play, for fear of making a mistake.

This is reminding me of a particular moment in the concert that I think the crowd really responded to, and that I noticed as well. You took a long cadenza on the Keith Jarrett tune “The Windup” and then the band came in underneath you, kind of open. The crowd was definitely paying attention in that moment, like, “what’s going to happen?” I’m curious how that was structured—is that something you do on that number every time?

Yeah, it’s like, “I’m going to play free, then you guys come up.” How they do it and when they do it, it’s all negotiable, it’s not set in stone. There’s no counting, it’s just when it feels right, come in.

That was definitely the sense I got. When you guys were actually not rigidly doing a specific thing that it really connected.

I think that most people hear music with their eyes. They don’t really hear with that kind of specificity. But at the same time, they hear and see at the same time, and they get a sense of when shit is actually spontaneous and happening in front of them, as opposed to when it’s completely tightly scripted and controlled and over-rehearsed. Especially in instrumental music, because the musicians tend not to play with a sense of urgency because they’ve got it all under control. And I always try to make sure to alleviate that possibility of us having it all under control. When it starts to sound like we have it under control, then I just take that song out of the set list.

What are your other strategies for keeping it “out of control,” keeping it fresh?

You hire musicians that don’t play that other way. And if they do play that other way, you give them a couple of days to figure out how to not do it and if they can’t then you just don’t hire them anymore. I only hire musicians who can live in the moment, I don’t deal with those other people. I don’t really hire the geniuses, I just hire the players. Geniuses are too smart for their own good.

About sitting in last night at Thelonious: how did the invitation make its way to you?

There’s an old man named Jose “Pepe” Hosiasson. I’ve been knowing Pepe for 20 years. Pepe says, “oh, you should come to the jazz club tonight,” and I said “for you, Pepe, I’ll come to the jazz club.” For Pepe, you know, the Polish Chilean, I’ll come out for you.

That’s where the interview ended, as the van arrived back at their hotel. To close, here’s a video profile of Pepe Hosiasson for you to get a feeling for his personality and the impact he has had on the Chilean jazz scene:

About arodjazz

Writer, trombonist, and PhD Candidate in Ethnomusicology exploring the complexity of today's jazz world
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