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For Branford Marsalis, art changed his tune

By Bill Beuttler (Boston Globe, December 21, 2003)

CAMBRIDGE -- Branford Marsalis has always run his career his own way, with scant attention to the desires or expectations of others.

His decision to leave his brother Wynton's band in 1985 to play with the pop star Sting killed that promising young quintet in its cradle. He walked away from the wealth and fame that accompanied being director of "The Tonight Show" band after less than three years, in January 1995, in large part because he didn't like living on the opposite coast from his young son and New York-based ex-wife.

More recently, having decided that his 20-year relationship with Columbia Records wasn't worth maintaining, Marsalis launched his own boutique-sized label, Marsalis Music, right here not quite two years ago.

All of which suggests that when Marsalis says that he probably won't include anything from his quartet's popular September release, "Romare Bearden Revealed," during this week's Friday through Tuesday run at the Regattabar, it's a good bet he won't.

"Romare Bearden Revealed" may very well be Marsalis Music's best calling card these days, if only because everyone on the first four CDs the label has put out makes an appearance on it. Still, the Bearden project is considered a serendipitous one-shot deal, and Marsalis feels no obligation to begin performing anything from it in concert, no matter how much people may like the disc.

Then again, he didn't want to record the CD itself early on. The lesson being that those closest to him -- his band and label mates, his family -- can sometimes persuade even Branford to change his mind.

Sometime last spring, Bob Blumenthal, the longtime Globe jazz columnist who quit to become a consultant to Marsalis Records, received a phone call from an old friend, Robert O'Meally of the Romare Bearden Foundation board, asking whether the label would be interested in putting together a jazz anthology to accompany a five-city exhibition of works by the late artist, who died in 1988.

Bearden's paintings and collages, after all, had been heavily influenced by jazz and other African-American music, to the point where several of his works are named for famous jazz compositions. The exhibition would open Sept. 14 at the National Gallery of Art in Washington and, after stops in San Francisco, Dallas, and New York, would wrap up in Atlanta in April 2005.

Blumenthal talked it over with Marsalis. Getting rights to old recordings would take too much time to get an album assembled and distributed in four months, even if they had wanted to do it -- which they didn't.

"The world does not need another compilation CD," explains Marsalis by phone from North Carolina. "I told Blumenthal it would be cool if they just got an artist and had him re-create the songs. And Bob says, `Would you be interested in doing it?' And I said, `No, I'm going on vacation. It's my first vacation in five years, and I'm taking it.' And my manager, Ann Marie Wilkins, called me and said, `You should do it.' And I'm like, `I'm not hearing this.' "

Blumenthal and Wilkins weren't hearing Marsalis, either. Instead of telling O'Meally that his answer was "no," they told him that Marsalis was considering the idea. O'Meally sent Marsalis a book of reproductions of the paintings being used in the exhibit, which Marsalis brought with him on a concert tour.

"As we started looking at these pictures," he recalls, "everybody in the band was like, `Man, we really need to do this.' So we did it."

Doing it meant postponing the album of melancholy ballads the quartet -- Marsalis, pianist Joey Calderazzo, bassist Eric Revis, and drummer Jeff "Tain" Watts -- had already been working on. The album was a mix of originals from each of the band members and obscure songs from the archives of artists such as Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Wayne Shorter, and Billie Holiday. That recording is now penciled in for a late summer or early fall release.

Instead, Blumenthal and Marsalis scrambled to track down music to match Bearden's jazz paintings emotionally. "Seabreeze" was obvious: Bearden had written the lyrics to this tune, briefly popularized in the late 1950s by Billy Eckstine and others. Duke Ellington's "I'm Slappin' Seventh Avenue" was tricky: Marsalis wrote out parts for his quartet and guitarist Doug Wamble, which in the absence of lead sheets he had to work out by ear from the orchestral recording.

Marsalis recalled recording a version of Jelly Roll Morton's "Jungle Blues" while on a family tour with his father and brothers two years ago that didn't make it onto their concert album but fit this project well. And Harry Connick Jr. was recruited for a duet with Marsalis on stride great James P. Johnson's "Carolina Shout."

A handful of newer tunes made it into the nine-song mix as well. Marsalis wrote the Sidney Bechet-influenced "B's Paris Blues," a task made easier by his having immersed himself in Bechet's music over the past year or so. Wamble, whose debut CD, "Country Libations," was recorded in the basement studio of Marsalis's Durham, N.C., home last winter and released in June, did a solo country blues inspired by Bearden's "Autumn Lamp (Guitar Player)." Wynton Marsalis sat in on a pianoless quartet version of Watts's tribute to the late Billy Higgins, "Laughin' & Talkin' (with Higg)," and also contributed the title tune from his 1985 album "J Mood," for whose cover art he'd commissioned a Bearden painting.

Branford Marsalis, incidentally, had bought a Bearden painting of his own not long before the artist's death, though his doing so had begun as his then-wife's idea.

He decided to run the idea past his father, pianist Ellis Marsalis.

"I said, `Dad, Teresa wants to go buy this painting that's painted by this guy Romare Bearden.'

"He said, `Yeah, Bearden's bad.'

"I said, `Well, if you buy the painting, you get to meet Bearden.'

"He said, `You go meet that man.' My father's like, `You can afford it. You're playing with a rock star. Go buy the painting.' "

Marsalis doesn't particularly mind that he later lost the painting in his divorce settlement. He still has his memories of meeting the artist himself.

"He was very quiet," Marsalis remembers. "But you could sense the curiosity in his eyes. He was intense. And it was rare to speak to a non-jazz musician who could speak about jazz like a musician does. Not in terms of the lingo, but in terms of a certain intuitive understanding of the music and how it functions. It was just deep. It was very shocking to me.

"Unlike a lot of musicians," Marsalis adds, "he was not shy about naming his influences. And he would paint things that were just like painters he admired, and use these people as subjects for his own growth. Which is funny, because it's a system that I believe in greatly."

One of Bearden's influences was Marc Chagall. Marsalis happened to stop by a Chagall exhibit in Paris last spring, which came in handy when the Bearden project happened along shortly afterward.

"Spending time there really helped me prepare for the Bearden exhibit," he says. "The first thing I thought when I saw [the Bearden works] was, `Wow, this is like Chagall.' So I knew which way I wanted to go with it. You know, you get the older songs and you interpret them. You try to stay as close as possible without sounding like a mimic, like an ape. Mimic the style and pay attention to detail, and as the record progresses, the style of music progresses to be more and more modern. Just like [Bearden's] career."

The result was the most accessible jazz record of Marsalis's career.

"It covers a lot of the historical spectrum," notes Blumenthal. "I mean, when you're playing Duke Ellington's music and [Jelly Roll] Morton's music or James P. Johnson -- these guys are proven geniuses, so you know you're starting with a good base."

Marsalis admits he and the band had a blast recording it, but don't expect them to play anything from it next weekend. They prefer sticking to more cutting-edge stuff, thank you.

"It's just funny," Marsalis says, "how my regular friends -- my lay people friends -- say, `Oh, I just love "Seabreeze," ' or "Steppin' On the Blues." And the musicians say, `That other stuff's all right, but that "Laughin' & Talkin"? Yeah, that's the stuff.' "

The exhibition of Bearden's work, which will go on a tour of US cities next year, can be seen at the National Gallery of Art in Washington through Jan. 4.

© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.
© Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company
© Bill Beuttler