NEW YORK - Branford Marsalis has no regrets about casting aside what to many would seem the trappings of a successful musical career - the gigs as bandleader-sidekick on "The Tonight Show" and musical director of Sting's post-Police band, even a contract with a major record label.
He has plugged his ears to the siren call of pop stardom, and shuns the spotlight of the fast-paced L.A. and New York scenes.
"I learned a lot about American pop culture and the entertainment business," said Marsalis, describing the lessons gained from his "Tonight" show experience from 1992 to '95. "What makes entertainment work for everybody is a certain embracing of the blatant superficiality of it, and that's just something that I wasn't able to do.... It was the revelation I needed to realize that I'm not an entertainer, I'm an artist."
Today, the 44-year-old Marsalis is living his life and defining success on his own terms. In 2002, he started his own record label, Marsalis Music, and moved his family from the New York City suburbs to Durham, N.C., where he was able to purchase a house large enough to accommodate a basement recording studio. Marsalis, a New Orleans native, said he preferred returning to his Southern roots to raise his family.
"My son had turned 15 and I just felt at the time that he needed to be in an environment where there's less of an overt embrace of materialism... and that tremendous sense of entitlement," said Marsalis. "In New York, the second or third question when you meet someone is 'What do you do?'... Most people in Durham don't know what I do or who I am, and that's great."
Marsalis mostly performs these days with his quartet at jazz clubs, festivals and college campuses. He occasionally appears with symphony orchestras to perform a classical repertoire. His current quartet - with pianist Joey Calderazzo, bassist Eric Revis, and drummer Jeff "Tain" Watts," whose links with Marsalis go back to the late '70s at Boston's Berklee College of Music - has been together for nearly six years.
Marsalis' quartet had built a reputation for its muscular high-intensity playing on "burnout" uptempo numbers. But the group shows a more sensitive side on its first all-ballads album, "Eternal," which has been nominated for a Grammy as best jazz instrumental album. The saxophonist previously won three Grammys in jazz and pop categories.
Marsalis didn't want to make the typical background-music ballads album full of pretty solos and familiar love songs. The album's seven tracks, with Marsalis switching between tenor and soprano saxophones, include three somewhat obscure covers - "The Ruby and the Pearl," done in a sultry semi-bolero style, which Nat King Cole and later Wayne Shorter recorded; "Dinner for One Please, James," which acknowledges the influence of tenor legend Ben Webster's lyrical and breathy romanticism, and "Gloomy Sunday," a mournful song of yearning associated with Billie Holiday.
Each of the quartet's members contributed an original ballad, including Marsalis, whose 17-minute "Eternal" is dedicated to wife Nicole.
"The hardest thing about playing a ballad is that ballads are essentially un-American. The American ideal... is to rise above the group through individual achievement," said Marsalis, interviewed over lunch at a hotel just down the street from the Time Warner Center, where he had performed with his father, pianist Ellis, and three of his brothers (trumpeter Wynton, trombonist Delfeayo and drummer Jason) at the gala concert opening Frederick P. Rose Hall (the new home of Jazz at Lincoln Center founded by younger brother Wynton).
"The idea of playing a ballad is basically sacrificing one's personal ambitions for the more unified goal of making the song as beautiful as possible... and it's hard to get musicians on board with that philosophy in an era where a lot of jazz musicians are rewarded for their amazingly technical virtuosic solos."
Marsalis says the ballads album wouldn't have been possible if the quartet had not tackled John Coltrane's legendary 1964 suite, "A Love Supreme," a deeply spiritual piece which jazz musicians have largely avoided playing, although Wynton recently recorded it with his Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra. Branford's quartet performed the full suite on Marsalis Music's debut CD, "Footsteps of Our Fathers," but gives a more definitive performance on their new DVD "Coltrane's A Love Supreme Live," recorded in 2003 at Amsterdam's Bimhuis Jazz Club.
The DVD, filmed by Emmy-winning director Pierre Lamoureux, captures all the nuances of the performance from the sweat pouring off of drummer Watts' brow to Marsalis calmly swaying back and forth. The bonus features include interviews with Marsalis, his bandmates and fellow saxophonists; a revealing 30-minute conversation between Marsalis and Coltrane's widow, Alice, and an audio-only disc of the 48-minute performance.
"I think a lot of musicians avoid playing 'A Love Supreme' because it's really hard to play and it basically can illuminate your weaknesses in a hurry," said Marsalis. "It forced us to deal with our own insecurities and how we wanted the group to sound.... I have good stamina, but playing that piece with that kind of intensity for 45 minutes was really exhausting.... The concentration that is required is just staggering."
Calderazzo, who released his first solo piano recording, "Haiku," on Marsalis Music, says Marsalis has helped him become a more complete musician. Each of the sidemen have their own CDs out and are much in demand, but remain with Marsalis.
"Branford is by far the best bandleader that I've come across," said Calderazzo, who joined the quartet in 1999 after the death of Marsalis' longtime pianist Kenny Kirkland. "He knows what he wants his band to sound like and how to get it.... He's got the best ears out of anybody I've ever worked with."
Marsalis explains his decision to leave Columbia/Sony after nearly 20 years as the result of a difference of philosophy. He felt Sony's music division was emphasizing the entertainment value rather than the music.
Marsalis says the point was driven home when he asked his son why he was illegally downloading some music rather than buying the CD. His son explained that it made no sense to pay $16 for a CD that he knew he wouldn't be listening to in six weeks' time.
"The music has become very disposable... not really music at all but, instead, product," said Marsalis. "How good the music is is irrelevant to how successful it is."
With his own label, Marsalis wants to give the musicians, including such newcomers as Puerto Rican alto saxophonist Miguel Zenon and the Tennessee-born country-jazz guitarist Doug Wamble, time to nurture their bands and develop their audience, but he doesn't feel it's his job to tell them what to record.
Harry Connick Jr., who describes Marsalis as "one of the most generous people that I've ever known," says he jumped at the chance to do a straight-ahead non-vocals instrumental jazz record, "Other Hours," for the saxophonist's label. The 37-year-old singer-pianist says Marsalis has been a mentor since they first met in New Orleans nearly 30 years ago, teaching him to be open-minded about various musical genres and not to be pigeonholed.
"A lot of the values that I have come from him, and if I had to sum up Branford in one sentence it's: He does what he loves to do," said Connick. "I like watching his creative process and we actually share that. He doesn't like to prepare. I'm a big fan of true improvisation and not really working out things too much and he's also much like that.
"Branford has found his own voice on his instrument, and at this late day in the development of jazz that's pretty amazing..."
Branford's open-mindedness has resulted in his somehow being considered less "serious" than Wynton, who's younger by 14 months. Wynton became an outspoken advocate for the neo-traditionalist movement in jazz, rejecting fusing jazz with rock or hip hop. But Branford shocked jazz purists when he left his brother's band in the mid-'80s to tour with Sting, and later formed his own jazz/hip-hop band Buckshot LeFonque, which he hopes to revive someday.
Branford says people too often focus on his performances with Sting and the Grateful Dead, while overlooking his jazz roots playing with Art Blakey, Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie.
"I've always said that jazz is best played by accumulating influences rather than trying to invent music on your own," said Marsalis. "If there is innovation to be gained, it will be achieved through the tradition rather than at the expense of it."
Branford, the oldest of six brothers, says his respect for the tradition was nurtured by growing up in a musical household where his father Ellis, a noted jazz educator, exposed his children to jazz without force-feeding it to them or acting as a stage father.
Marsalis concedes he wasn't really sure about his musical path until he took the "Tonight" bandleader's post and felt something was lacking.
"My crisis of conscience has always been in, like, leaving jazz to go do other things, because I wasn't really sure about wanting to play jazz," said Marsalis. "Once I decided that jazz was what I wanted to do... I realized that this is what I was meant to do and I just set about the task of doing it."