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Jazz great: It's the journey, not the arrival

Author: Robert Miller
STAFF WRITER

Wherever it is, Branford Marsalis hasn't gotten there yet. Nor, in particular, does he care about getting there. The journey, not the destination matters. "I haven't arrived,'' Marsalis said. "If you've arrived, you're finished.''

Marsalis, increasingly acknowledged as one the most accomplished and impassioned musicians in jazz will arrive, to start all over again, in Danbury on July 7 to give a benefit concert for the Hord Foundation. The performance will be at Ives Concert Hall at Western Connecticut State University at 8 p.m.

Marsalis will be accompanied by his working quartet -- pianist Joey Calederazzo, bassist Eric Revis and drummer Jeff "Tain" Watts. The group has been together as a unit for about seven years -- an eon or two in jazz, where groups seldom stay together for more than a few months. But the time spent together has created the instinctive interplay among its members that critics have increasingly found exhilarating. Bob Young of the Boston Herald said the group's 2006 recording "Braggtown'' ranks with "the most cohesive, intense and beautiful releases'' of Marsalis' career.

For Bernard McFadden, chairman of the Hord Foundation's board of directors -- which has given out over $2 million in scholarships to hundreds of minority students since it began in 1993 -- bringing Marsalis to the city is a chance to bring a great musician, and a great role model, to the area.

"He's a complete musician at the top of his game,'' McFadden said. But he also points out Marsalis has worked hard as a teacher and social activist -- a man who has taken a lead role in carrying on the jazz tradition, while also taking a major role in helping the people of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina devastated their lives.

"His reputation is impeccable,'' McFadden said.

Marsalis' roots are in New Orleans. He's the eldest son of jazz pianist Ellis Marsalis and one of four brothers making a mark on the jazz scene today -- most notably, his brother, trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, who heads Jazz at Lincoln Center.

He's in his 20s working as a sideman with jazz patriarchs like Art Blakey and Clark Terry as well as greats like Herbie Hancock and Miles Davis. But he's also stepped off the "pure" jazz reservation when his instincts told him to go there -- most notably as a member of Sting's unique jazz-rock-world music hybrid band in the 1980s, then as leader of "The Tonight Show'' band for two years in the 1990s -- then left when the muse pointed him elsewhere.

"The Tonight Show" gig was, to use the words of the colorful governor of Louisiana, Edwin Edwards, 'the type of job you could only lose if you were found with a live boy or a dead girl,''' Marsalis said. "But for me, I did it for two years and it was time to try to move on.''

His current band features musicians who have all recorded their own highly-praised albums and could have separate careers if they chose. But Marsalis said the band stays together because they've reached the level where they can communicate by intuition and feel, whether playing at full bore or on quiet ballads. On "Braggtown'' he said, one cut, "Sir Roderick, The Aloof'' has a strong melody, but no set time. The group has learned to increase the song's intensity without depending on a steady beat. That takes practice and faith and cohesion.

"There's one song we play by our bassist, Eric Revis, that took us about six months before we could play it right,'' he said.

Not arriving also means not resting on laurels. Marsalis said after the release of "Braggtown" he got a laundry list of things he needed to work on from his saxophone teacher, Harvey Pittel at the University of Texas at Austin. It also means digging deeper into the core of music, rather than resting on technical prowess.

"Everyone loves to hear a 19-year old play Paganini,'' he said, of the dazzlingly virtuosity required to play the music of the 19th century Italian violin master Niccolo Paganini. "People like speed. But nobody wants to hear a 45-year-old play Paganini; I'm not sure 45-year-olds want to play Paganini. Everything we do now is about making music.'' And to make that music the way he wants, Marsalis has started his own label, "Marsalis Music.'' The goal, he said, is to record and sell albums to the people who want to hear his music without worrying about definitions.

"We live with the notion that popular culture gets to define things,'' Marsalis said. "Does that mean classical music and classical composition and poetry -- anything that requires a certain concentration of thought -- gets lost? We want people to buy our records because they actually like our records."

The Bradford Marsalis Quartet will give a benefit concert for the Hord Foundation on July 7 at 8 p.m. at Ives Concert Hall at Western Connecticut State University's midtown campus in Danbury. Tickets will cost $25, $35, $50, $75 and $100. Those buying $100 tickets are invited to a champagne reception after the concert.

To order tickets, calls the WestConn box office at (203) 837-8499 or visit www.wcsu.edu/tickets

Copyright, 2007, The News-Times (Danbury, CT)

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