From his touring days with the iconic drummer and bandleader Art Blakey three decades ago to his current work with his own quintet, Branford Marsalis has had a keen understanding of the relationship — or the lack of same — between jazz and pop music.
There have been instances, of course, when he has flirted with the latter, as with his '80s and '90s collaborations with the ex-Police popster Sting. There also was a noted occasion when he tried, briefly, to bring jazz — not watered-down, pop-coated jazz, but seriously designed swing — to the very non-jazz environment of The Tonight Show With Jay Leno as bandleader.
But at age 50, having spent roughly two-thirds of his life growing up in public, Marsalis remains something of a jazz talisman. He is proud of where the genre has been and more than a bit wary of where it's going.
"I was always very cognizant of the reality of where I was," said Marsalis, who performs Saturday in Lexington for the first time in 21 years. "Even when I was doing interviews a long time ago, I did not foresee a formula by which you could use jazz to become pop-culture relevant. That window had closed. But now I'm completely content with the decisions. That's the legacy, post-Jay. If you make a decision to play the music, just play it.
"So it's cool. It's all cool."
The ways of the family
Marsalis hails from one of the most musically learned families in one of the most musically fertile regions of the country. His father is the celebrated pianist and educator Ellis Marsalis. His three younger brothers — trumpeter Wynton, drummer Jason and trombonist Delfeayo — are acclaimed artists who have explored, honored and continually drawn from the musical traditions of their New Orleans upbringings to forge their own jazz voices.
A concert album called Music Redeems, released during the summer and credited to The Marsalis Family, features a rare performance reunion of father and sons. The record also is a benefit for the Ellis Marsalis Center for Music, an educational center designed to serve and nurture the next generation of New Orleans artists.
For the saxophonist, such family concert settings (another Marsalis Family recording was issued in 2007) are more about "the vibe" than the music and allow him to enjoy sibling relationships that are often very different than they were during childhood.
"Delfeayo, for example, is five years younger than me. So by the time he entered high school, I was gone. High school years are very different. When you're 14 years old, you don't want to hang with your 9-year-old brother. And when you're 19 years old, you're definitely not going to hang with your 14-year-old brother. So our relationship is more as adults than as kids.
"But these concerts are fun. The music is swinging and we're all having a good time. There is a real symbiosis there. And it's not just because we're from the same family, but because we all learned to play in New Orleans the same kind of way."
A glance at the past
After his '80s tenure with Blakey in the '80s, Marsalis took the saxophone spot in brother Wynton's early quintet before devoting all his time to his own music. Again, there were projects that detoured from jazz, including extensive world tours in 1985 and 1987 with Sting.
Ask Marsalis about his work off the jazz bandstand and he is almost playfully critical.
"It's cringe-inducing, first of all. I recently walked into a UPS Store — and stuff like this happens a lot now, it's bizarre — and the young kid working there said, 'I saw you on The Fresh Prince of Bel Air,'" he said, referring to Marsalis' one-time cameo on an episode of the 1990s Will Smith comedy series. "I said, 'That wasn't me.' And they say, 'It was you. I know it was you.' I said, 'Oh, it was me, but it wasn't me. I'm not that guy anymore.'"
Marsalis is more generous in appraising the jazz he cut over the years. He gives high marks to his trio recordings — especially 1991's The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born, the 1993 concert album Bloomington and 1996's The Dark Keys. He also favors a pair of 2004 works: a CD/DVD recording of John Coltrane's A Love Supreme and the splendid quartet album Eternal.
Also remembered favorably is the 1990 quartet recording Crazy People Music, a record that Marsalis said captured a creative growth spurt. It remains a favorite of fans and prospective students, which Marsalis says isn't always a good thing.
"Crazy People Music was kind of a breakthrough record. We were starting to pull away from the typical post-bop stuff. We weren't really free of it yet, which is why when I go to universities, a lot of kids want to play songs from the record. It makes them feel comfortable. Well, one of my goals is to get them to a place where we're playing music that doesn't make them feel comfortable.
"For me, it was when I started listening to people like Ornette Coleman and certain elements of John Coltrane — things that didn't make me feel comfortable at all — that I really started to expand as a musician."
So what will be on Marsalis' mind when he prefaces Saturday's performance with a master class Friday for University of Kentucky students?
"We have an obligation to pass on information to younger people. I was raised to believe that. As long as students are diligent and serious, it's all going to be cool. Ultimately, though, they can't just ape everything that I do or say. They have to figure this stuff out for themselves.
"But I definitely want to give them perspectives that are different from the ones they're used to."
The state of jazz
Asking Marsalis to examine the state of jazz music is today is something akin to tapping a volcano.
He champions the players he performs with. On Saturday, they will include longtime pianist Joey Calderazzo; his '80s/'90s-era bassist Robert Hurst, a fill-in for regular Marsalis Quintet bassist Eric Revis, who is performing this month in Europe with Kurt Rosenwinkel; and 19-year-old Philadelphia drummer Justin Faulkner, who replaced Marsalis mainstay Jeff "Tain" Watts last year. But expand the question to the overall health of jazz, and the saxophonist sees music increasingly devoid of one key characteristic: swing.
"I think the jazz scene is overrun by technocrats and the kind of technocratic thinking where the music is personal to the point of introversion.
"The feeling of swing was the one thing that kept jazz in line with popular culture because the swing beat came out of the period when jazz was dance music. Today, you have musicians using strange chords and chord sequences for music that has no groove. And then people wonder why laymen don't like it.
"I made it a habit in my late 20s to talk to people who were maybe 25 years older than me that had gone to jazz concerts, and asked them what they liked about them. And it was amazing some of the responses I got. Most of them were visceral. They talked about what they saw more than what they heard. And when they weren't talking about what they saw — and this was very interesting to me — they talked about what they felt.
"You can read a lot of interviews with relatively successful jazz musicians right now, and 'how the music feels' never comes up in conversation. It's all guys talking about paradigms and five- or seven-note clusters and harmonic conversions.
"If that's what the music has become, then, man, it's hopeless."