After playing two separate engagements here in the spring of 2007, saxophonist Branford Marsalis is back in Minnesota to perform with the Filharmonia Brasileira at Orchestra Hall and in Winona.
When we talked to him last year, the eldest of the Marsalis brothers spoke about how maturity had helped him become more diligent -- and how much he enjoyed classical gigs because of the rigorous practice required. This weekend's program involves modern classical music with a distinctively Brazilian twist. Under the direction of conductor Gil Jardim, Marsalis and the Filharmonia will play compositions by Brazilians Heitor Villa-Lobos, Lea Freire and Milton Nascimento, as well as by Villa-Lobos' French friend Darius Milhaud.
Because Branford is never at a loss for intelligent words, we tracked him down in a Fayetteville, Ark., hotel room for a quick phone interview.
Q When I spoke with jazz composer Maria Schneider and classical singer Dawn Upshaw recently, they said jazz musicians hum and articulate and approach music much differently than classical musicians. Do you find that to be true, and, if so, how do you adjust?
A Yeah, that's true to some extent, although I would say it even depends on the musician. Not all jazz or all classical musicians hum or play the same. And those who play now do it differently than they did it 30 years ago -- and they probably did it better back then.
Q So is it something you can prepare for when you get ready to play with the Filharmonia Brasileira or is it something that you'll pick up with each other as you go along?
A It's more something we'll pick up with each other. Being Brazilians, they play with an invisible rhythm that other orchestras wouldn't play with. It makes a big difference and it is their social upbringing, which is very different than American and European musicians and affects how you hear the music. There might be a little more bounce to it and yet still within the tradition, although classical music at its best has a certain amount of bounce.
Q Villa-Lobos and Milhaud are said to be jazz-oriented classical composers who also influenced each other. Do you hear that?
A There are similarities. They had the same influences and they rubbed off on each other like DeBussy and Ravel. Milhaud was the more adventurous because he was able to spend time listening to jazz in New York and Chicago. He didn't try to imitate jazz rhythmically but tried to create music that emulated the sound he heard in his head. He does that really well, with Brazilian influences too. A piece like "Scaramouche" [part of Saturday's performance] in fact, is based on a popular 19th century tango. It is interesting what he chose to emulate.
Q What about the other composers on the program, such as Freire and Nascimento?
A It is contemporary Brazilian music with a popular flair. Brazil still has pop music with some substance to it, which is a testament to how open the society is musicially.
Q You recorded one of the Villa-Lobos pieces you will do in Minneapolis back in 1986, and much of the Milhaud in 2001. Do you know those pieces much better today?
A I would say any problems I had were technical problems, that it was just a matter of me starting to work more on my technique. The realities of popular music culture and jazz are you can rely on individual expression to achieve things -- the technical mastery doesn't matter so much. But classical music requires both.
The analogy I like to use is the difference between an actor in a sitcom and an actor in the theater. In a sitcom, pretty much the job is just to be funny, and most actors generally can be funny. But to be in a play by a Tom Stoppard or an Arthur Miller, you have to develop a character that is convincing. In a sitcom, a lot of what happens is improvised, but in the theater, you have to learn a hundred thousand words and you can't change the words. Now people tend to like the sitcom stuff more than the written stuff. But you notice TV actors don't usually have much success on Broadway.
Q It sounds like you have a higher regard for classical music than jazz.
A No, I have a higher regard for the challenges it presents, and a higher regard for the philosophy behind it. But I don't think everyone achieves that. In classical music there is an unhealthy attention to the technical side as opposed to the musical side, especially on the saxophone. But that is also something that plagues jazz. You have musicians who spend so much time working on patterns and scales they forget to swing.
There is a new philosophy that music doesn't have to swing to be jazz. The obvious retort is that I have never heard somebody who can swing say that. It's like what they say about Obama's eloquence; that words are all he's got. But I haven't heard anyone eloquent say that. We all have a denial that is unhealthy for us, like jazz doesn't have to swing and the English language doesn't have to be utilized and developed.
Q It seems that lately there have been a lot of events where jazz and classical musics are being blended.
A Yeah but it is mostly cosmetic because they can't really blend. They can steal from each other. We [his jazz quartet] use more classical, especially in ballads, we use more rubato. Practicing classical music has made us infinitely better: It forces you to deal with inadequacies. In pop music and some jazz, you can play what you know and what you want to play. In classical music, you have to deal with your technical deficiencies.
Q Have you worked with Gil Jardim before?
A No I haven't. He has a certain kind of specificity that I don't have, but as long as we're on the same musical page things will be fine. We'll miss a couple of notes here and there but as long as we're trying to make music positively it will be okay.
Q Last question: Why is there this connection between jazz saxophone and the music of Brazil, with Stan Getz interpreting Antonio Carlos Jobim being one of the obvious examples?
A Well, what we're playing [at Orchestra Hall] is very different than that. That's bossa nova, which has chord changes that appeal to jazz guys. But Heitor Villa-Lobos is a classical composer, who also wrote out Brazilian songs, and arranged for piano and vocal. It is such a variety of music he has done. It is not enough to be a classical player to get inside those songs; there is also a temperament that you need.
Being from New Orleans really helps me because there is an amazing similarity between the cultures. The people of Brazil are huggers, and it is heartfelt when hug. People of the English culture, they tap your back three times to get the hugs out of the way. In New Orleans and in Brazil they embrace each other and kiss. It was hard when I went back east not to call people "baby," even men. It was hard to expunge that from my conversation. I was used to going in a store and having a guy say, "What's happening baby? What can I get for you?" Back east, you call someone baby and they're liable to come over the counter at you.