Marsalis Fired Up

BRANFORD MARSALIS at the Toronto Centre for the Arts (5040 Yonge), Friday and Saturday (December 7 and 8). $45.75-$57.75. 416-872-1111..

BRANFORD MARSALIS at the Toronto Centre for the Arts (5040 Yonge), Friday and Saturday (December 7 and 8). $45.75-$57.75. 416-872-1111.

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There’s no sign of Branford Marsalis mellowing in his middle age.

At 41, the tenor saxophonist has a long history of stirring things up in the jazz world, whether it’s playing pop and acid jazz, quitting a lucrative TV gig in a ball of flames or seemingly slagging off Cecil Taylor in Ken Burns’s Jazz documentary.

He admits operating on one speed — “mine.” He’s open about his massive ego and talent and has never backed away from the opportunity to take a shot at those who would hem in jazz music.

Even the seemingly innocuous subject of Marsalis’s forthcoming Footsteps Of Our Fathers album is a tinderbox that sets off a long rant on the state of jazz today and musicians who practise their solos in front of a mirror.

“The new record has us doing major standards like Coltrane’s A Love Supreme and Sonny Rollins’s Freedom Suite,” Marsalis offers between takes at Bearsville Studios. “These are heavy fucking songs, but I ain’t scared. If you ain’t capable of playing it, it’ll be obvious soon enough.

“I’m a very vocal believer in understanding the pedagogy of the music before you can call yourself new. That’s the problem I hear with most of these so-called modern players today. You can tell that they’ve never listened to a record made before 1955. You can hear that everywhere. Eighty per cent of jazz records today feature guys overdubbing their solos. It’s just disgraceful. You should just take that shit and go home.”

Marsalis has had the opportunity to reshape the jazz scene, or at least part of it, in his image.

In the late 90s, he was hired on as head of Columbia Records’ jazz department and immediately tried to mix things up. Under his tenure, the label released two records by fire-breathing sax giant David S. Ware as well as provocative sessions by Marsalis’s drummer, Jeff Watts, and others.

Predictably, the venture ended in tears soon after it began, and Marsalis ended up leaving Columbia even more bitter about what’s considered the jazz industry today.

“Columbia hired me under the banner of reviving the jazz department,” Marsalis steams. “That can mean one of two things. Either they want you to sell a lot of records with shit that’s not jazz and call it jazz, or they actually want you to return the jazz department to the level of credibility that made it a valuable asset in the first place.

“I wanted to see if they were serious, so I signed David. Uh-oh. As it turned out, they didn’t give a fuck about jazz, either selling it or making quality records. They hired two people to sell 25 records and tried as hard as they could to bury them.

“I thought it was fascinating that after we left, the people who took over said I was a failure. Artistically, my tenure was one of the best successes that label had since Miles. We didn’t make one shitty record, and the ultimate irony is that in 30 years, those records will wind up being major assets to their catalogue.

“What does that tell you about the fucking state of jazz today?”

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