Three-time Grammy-winning saxophonist Branford Marsalis has performed around the globe with his jazz quartet - also including pianist Joey Calderazzo, bassist Eric Revis and drummer Justin Faulkner – which the London Jazz News has praised for its “richness of sound” and “restless, disciplined energy.” The group’s current work with guest jazz vocalist Kurt Elling marks the first time the tight-knit group has ever paired with another artist. While the show will follow the format of a standard jazz quartet with vocals, the band members have all contributed new jazz arrangements looking beyond the Great American Songbook to perform for this special line-up.
Branford Marsalis has stayed the course. From his early acclaim as a saxophonist
bringing new energy and new audiences to the jazz art, he has refined and expanded his
talents and his horizons as a musician, composer, bandleader and educator – a 21st
Century mainstay of artistic excellence.
Growing up in the rich environment of New Orleans as the oldest son of pianist and
educator Ellis Marsalis, Branford was drawn to music along with siblings Wynton,
Delfeayo and Jason. His first instrument, the clarinet, gave way to the alto and then the
tenor and soprano saxophones when the teenage Branford began working in local
bands. A growing fascination with jazz as he entered college gave him the basic tools to
obtain his first major jobs, with trumpet legend Clark Terry and alongside Wynton in Art
Blakey’s legendary Jazz Messengers. When the brothers left to form the Wynton
Marsalis Quintet, the world of uncompromising acoustic jazz was invigorated. Branford
formed his own quartet in 1986 and, with a few minor interruptions in the early years,
has sustained the unit as his primary means of expression. Known for the telepathic
communication among its uncommonly consistent personnel, its deep book of original
music replete with expressive melodies and provocative forms, and an unrivaled spirit in
both live and recorded performances, the Branford Marsalis Quartet has long been
recognized as the standard to which other ensembles of its kind must be measured. Its
most recent recording, Four MFs Playin’ Tunes, was named Best Instrumental Jazz
Album in 2012 by iTunes.
Branford has not confined his music to the quartet context. In addition to guest turns
with a legion of giants including Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Herbie Hancock and Sonny
Rollins, he has excelled in duets with several major pianists, including his boyhood friend
Harry Connick, Jr. and the longtime pianist in his quartet, Joey Calderazzo. Branford’s
first solo concert, at San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral, is documented on his latest
recording, In My Solitude.
Classical music inhabits a growing portion of Branford’s musical universe. With a
repertoire including works by Copland, Debussy, Glazunov, Ibert, Mahler, Milhaud,
Rorem, Vaughan Williams, Villa-Lobos and Sally Beamish (who reconceived a work in
progress, “Under the Wing of the Rock,” to feature Branford’s saxophone after hearing
him perform one of her earlier pieces), Branford is frequently heard with leading
symphony orchestras including those in Chicago, Detroit, Dusseldorf and North Carolina
as well as the New York Philharmonic. He also served as Creative Director for the
Cincinnati Symphony’s Ascent series in 2012-13.
Broadway has also welcomed Branford’s contributions. His initial effort, original music
for a revival of August Wilson’s Fences, garnered a Drama Desk Award for Outstanding
Music in a Play and a Tony nomination for Best Original Score Written for the Theater.
Branford also provided music for The Mountaintop, starring Samuel L. Jackson and
Angela Bassett, and served as musical curator for the 2014 revival of A Raisin in the Sun.
Branford’s screen credits include the original music for Mo’ Better Blues and acting roles
in School Daze and Throw Momma from the Train.
Branford formed the Marsalis Music label in 2002, and under his direction it has
documented his own music, talented new stars such as Miguel Zenón, and un-heralded
older masters including one of Branford’s teachers, the late Alvin Batiste. Branford has
also shared his knowledge as an educator, forming extended teaching relationships at
Michigan State, San Francisco State and North Carolina Central Universities and
conducting workshops at sites throughout the United States and the world.
As for other public stages, Branford spent a period touring with Sting, collaborated with
the Grateful Dead and Bruce Hornsby, served as Musical Director of The Tonight Show
Starring Jay Leno and hosted National Public Radio’s widely syndicated Jazz Set. The
range and quality of these diverse activities established Branford as a familiar presence
beyond the worlds of jazz and classical music, while his efforts to help heal and rebuild
New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina mark him as an artist with an
uncommonly effective social vision. Together with Harry Connick, Jr. and New Orleans
Habitat for Humanity, Branford conceived and helped to realize The Musicians’ Village, a
community in the Upper Ninth Ward that provides homes to the displaced families of
musicians and other local residents. At the heart of The Musicians’ Village stands the
Ellis Marsalis Center for Music, a community center dedicated to preserving the rich
New Orleans musical legacy containing state-of-the art spaces for performance,
instruction and recording.
Some might gauge Branford Marsalis’s success by his numerous awards, including three
Grammys and (together with his father and brothers) his citation as a Jazz Master by the
National Endowment for the Arts. To Branford, however, these are only way stations
along what continues to be one of the most fascinating and rewarding journeys in the
world of music.