Music critic and journalist
     Cheryl North :: Interviews

Cheryl North Interviews Branford Marsalis

Classical Music Column, Preview Section, Bay Area News Group, September 26, 2008

Some families seem to have an inordinate amount of genetic good luck.

Consider the number of adept politicians and public servants abounding in the Adams or Kennedy family gene pools, or the bounty of extraordinary actors produced by the Barrymore and Redgrave families.

Few families in history, however, have equaled the magnificent Marsalis clan of New Orleans for its proliferation of top-flight musicians — except, of course, for the Bach family back in 17th and 18th century Germany!

Fortunately for us, the musical moxie of Branford Marsalis, one of the more jazz-oriented members of the aforementioned dynasty, will be on display in the Bay Area next week as he opens the 2008-2009 Stanford Lively Arts season with a program called "Marsalis Brasilianos" at Memorial Auditorium in Palo Alto.

Branford Marsalis is one of the six sons of Ellis Marsalis Jr. and his wife, Delores Ferdinand. While Branford and Delfeayo are saxophone virtuosos, Wynton is one of the world's premier trumpeters, and Jason is a master percussionist. Another son, Ellis Marsalis III, is a poet, photographer and computer-networking specialist, while the youngest, Mboya Kinyatta, is autistic.

Branford generously took time out of his frenetic schedule to answer a few of my questions last week.

'Intellectual challenge'

To my question, "What on earth did your parents do to raise so many high-achieving, successful musicians?" he answered: "I was raised to be a modern politician. My mom is a fiery, in-your-face kind of woman with strong opinions. My dad has strong opinions as well, but burns much cooler, and has the ability to see an argument from both sides of an issue — what we now call nuance.

"Ours was a house full of intellectual challenge, and a healthy dose of banality. I didn't know of any parents, other than my own, among my circle of friends who read Kahlil Gibran, W.E.B. Du Bois and the Enquirer."

Citing more details about his early training, he said, "I had a counterintuitive musical upbringing. Whereas most kids practice and study diligently, I did not (though I do now). But I listened to a ton of music and still do. While I am not advocating not practicing, I think all musicians would benefit greatly from more varied listening habits."

Like brother Wynton, Branford is known for his broad musical scope. Master of all sorts of saxophones, he has already gained fame, acclaim and three Grammys for his jazz skills. He has also spent two years touring and recording with Sting and has served as musical director of The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. He has collaborated with the Grateful Dead and Bruce Hornsby.

Moreover, Branford is also an actor of note and has appeared in a number of films, including Throw Momma From the Train and School Daze, and provided music for Mo' Better Blues. In addition, he served as host for National Public Radio's syndicated program Jazz Set. Nevertheless, he has become increasingly active as a soloist with such acclaimed symphony orchestras as Chicago, Detroit and Dusseldorf and the Boston Pops. His nearly two dozen recordings in various styles have received numerous accolades, with his most recent CD, the Grammy-nominated Braggtown, acknowledged as his quartet's greatest recorded achievement to date.

Therefore, the Stanford program represents a bit of a departure from Branford's usual musical fare. "Marsalis Brasilianos" will focus on a more classical menu with its commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the death of Brazil's great classical composer, Heitor Villa-Lobos. The concert will include not only a number of Villa-Lobos favorites, but also several of French-born composer Darius Milhaud's evocative musical meditations on Brazil.

Backing Marsalis in this properly symphonic program will be the Philharmonia Brasileira Orchestra of Brazil, led by its founder and conductor, Gil Jardim.

Wide-ranging program

Among the works planned for the program will be Villa-Lobos' 1949 Fantasia for Soprano Saxophone and Piano or Orchestra, his 1912 Suite for Strings and the exquisitely beautiful Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5, composed in 1938 in tribute to the 17th century music of J.S. Bach.

Additional selections will be Milhaud's 1923, Op. 81 composition La creation du monde, as well as his ebullient 1937 Scaramouche for Alto Saxophone and Orchestra.

Regarding the Brazilian Villa-Lobos' significance to classical music, Marsalis said, "When most people think of Brazilian music, they think of the samba-influenced music of the '40s, '50s and '60s, particularly the music of Jobim. Villa-Lobos is nothing like that. I think there will be a few surprised folks in the audience."

Warner and Cheryl North with Branford Marsalis at the reception following the opening of the Stanford Lively Arts Season on October 5, 2008
(Photo credit: Toni Gauthier, courtesy of Stanford Lively Arts)

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