The Sound and me' #04 with Branford Marsalis

The Sound and me #04 avec Branford Marsalis
For this new episode, American saxophonist Branford Marsalis evoked his memories with Art Blakey and Benny Golson, obsession with Coltrane's sound, Dexter Gordon's rhythmic placement, old recordings and his passionnate discussions with his father, pianist Ellis Marsalis...

Sound like Coltrane

I remember when I was with Art Blakey's band, listening to Coltrane and playing by ear. Blakey came up behind me and he tapped me on the shoulder because I had my headphones on and he said, "What are you doing?" So I said, "I'm trying to learn to play like Coltrane." And he laughed. He said, "That's not how you learn to play like Coltrane," which I didn't understand. So I sarcastically said, "Oh, so if I wanna play like Coltrane, I shouldn't listen to Coltrane." And then he said, "Well, when Coltrane was 15, what do you think he was listening to? Tapes of himself in the future?" I brooded about it for a while. And then I said, "Wow. Yeah." Then I asked, "Who does Coltrane sound like?" "Call Benny Golson, he knows a lot about it. Call Benny!"

And Benny was kind enough to say, "John Coltrane's first big influence, believe it or not, was Johnny Hodges. And he was playing exactly like Johnny until he heard Charlie Parker. And then we didn't see him for three weeks and when he came back he was playing like Charlie Parker".


Coltrane is an amalgam

So Coltrane was clearly listening to a lot of musicians. I know from talking to McCoy Tyner that he used to listen to Sydney Bechet for his soprano playing. That's one of the reasons why Coltrane has this sound, which is not my favorite sound, as it is for a lot of people. I like the fuller sound, I prefer the sound of Sonny Rollins, but... a lot of the way Coltrane plays influences the way he has shaped his music and everything else. We have A Love Supreme because he wrote it. That's the sound that he wanted. So I love it. I spent 10 years learning to sound like him to play with that kind of intensity, without that edge to the sound that I've never been a fan of.

But John Coltrane is an amalgam of all these other musicians, including Earl Bostic, because he realized that all the guys who play jazz have R&B in their playing, and he doesn't. He's just a little bit like that. So he left jazz to join Earl Bostic's band to get this R&B thing. And there's this wonderful recording of him in 1954, playing at a dance with Johnny Hodges' band, and he plays a jump blues. It's definitely John Coltrane playing that blues in A flat with a backbeat. And he's playing all that bass-rock music that the tenor sax played during that period. The understanding of the sound vocabulary allowed Coltrane to play the way he did and to have a certain kind of emotional impact. But when you have people who at a young age gravitate around a musician and don't listen to the musicians who influenced the conception of that musician, there's a gap. The notes are right, but everything else is not. The sound is not good.

My band is imitated. My band is imitating Coltrane's band and this Miles Davis band with Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, Wayne Shorter, especially the way we interact with the solos. But I like Coltrane's band for the intensity of his playing. So we have these two models that we constantly refer to in terms of sound. But that brilliant John sound is not my thing. I went in a different direction. I don't know why so many people like him so much. But listening is part of the culture, and if you want to listen differently, you have to change your cultural experience. And I think most people are afraid to do that or don't want to do it.


Develop your own sound

The way I develop my sound is by listening to records. I remember when I first moved to New York, we all bought mouthpieces and we all said, "This mouthpiece makes this sound, this mouthpiece can make you sound like Coltrane, this mouthpiece can make you sound like Sonny Rollins..." So we'd buy the mouthpiece, and for about a week or so, it worked. And then within two weeks, we were back to our own sound.

I was talking to a neurologist who said that no matter what ideas you have in your head, the only way to change the idea is to actually change it. The sound I have is the sound that's in my head. So the question is, can we change the sound that's in our head? And if the answer is yes, then how do we do it?

So I've been talking to older jazz musicians about it. I talked to Art Blakey, I talked to Benny about it, and they said, "Start by listening to records. Really start listening to records first". Benny's the person to talk to about it. He doesn't generalize, he's very specific. He said, "It's not about learning the notes. It's not about playing the notes that they play. It's about sounding like those people you're trying to imitate." And when he said that, it just clicked for me.

So I started listening specifically to Coleman Hawkins, Sonny Rollins and Wayne Shorter. I wanted my sound to be a rich sound like Dexter Gordon's, but with musical ideas and an ideology of playing with patience, playing with space, not constantly filling the place with notes. That's one of the things Wayne is really good at. And it took me many years for the sound to develop fully, probably 15 or 20 years. At the very beginning I could just imitate Sonny Rollins or I could imitate Wayne Shorter or I could imitate Coleman Hawkins. But very gradually it started to become part of a more general sound. So when I play all these things and all these musicians, Warne Marsh, with Charlie Parker and Ornette Coleman and Sidney Bechet and all these solos that I learned from a lot of people, they're all there and they helped me create what is my sound. And I'm very happy to have learned that way, because it's a very interesting thing.

Jackie McLean plays on a Sonny Clarke recording, and Jackie's solo in "Sippin'at Bells" sounds exactly like a Dexter Gordon sound on the viola. Someone who doesn't listen with any rigor might easily think it was Dexter Gordon. And it's fascinating for me to see how when musicians learn by ear, they can play the same information and it can sound the same, but they don't sound the same. And it's those little observations that I've gathered from listening that really made me realize that it's in my best interest to use my ears to create my sound, instead of using an accessory. When I'm not listening to the data and I'm listening to the sound, then the notes played are almost irrelevant. What matters is how they are played.


Dexter Gordon and rythmic placement

What I liked about Dexter was his ability to play really far behind the beat. And that's done so consistently that it becomes normal sometimes. In modern popular music you can listen to these records, especially in RnB, where they use digital technology to move the whole vocal track, just a tenth of a second, a tenth of a millisecond behind the groove. I think this guy, D'Angelo, did it on his second record. Dexter was able to do that without the help of the machine. He could just put the rhythm in a really cool place. Dexter was a big fan of Lester Young, a lot of what he played was straight out of Lester Young's register. But he had a different, more powerful sound. And the way he places the notes completely changes the way we react and the way we hear that information.

As musicians, we forget that most of the people who come to our concerts don't know everything about the data. They don't have an understanding of pitch, sound or time. They like songs with good melody and rhythm. It's the same thing in pop music, it's the same thing in symphonic music. Ravel has written some really amazing music throughout his life. But the piece that most people know is the Bolero. It's the one with a good melody and a strong rhythm. It's human nature to prefer that. So, if you want to play modern music, you have to integrate those elements that help people to identify. And that's what Dexter understood. He set the rhythm so that people who like dance music are forced to listen. And he had that kind of big band bounce from the swing era, because Lester Young had it and Dexter stole it from him.

There's an early recording of Dexter, it's verbatim of Lester Young. And then there are other recordings where he listens to Charlie Parker and it starts to change a little bit. Dexter, to me, is the combination of these two musicians.


Record VS live

There is a logical explanation for the conflict between the way musicians sound in the studio and their live sound. When you listen to recordings from the 40s and 50s, they were recorded in these incredibly large halls. I saw this great register when Miles Davis had the band with Herbie Hancock and Ron Carter. They used this studio on 30th Street in New York City. It's a converted church, the ceiling is about 20 meters high. And if you look at the track record, there are the TV jingles, the production music for the TV shows and, stuck in the middle, two hours of Miles Davis with his quintet. That's the way it was recorded back then. It wasn't: you go in there and you have the whole day to yourself. These rooms were supposed to be multi-purpose rooms. And what the big halls do is allow the acoustic waves to reach their full maturity, which is the source of the sound.

If jazz recordings sound flat today, it's because musicians choose to play in very, very small rooms. Electronic albums sound good when they are made in small rooms, but acoustic albums do not. That's why you never see an orchestra playing in small rooms, because the height of the ceiling determines the proportions of the sound wave. And if it's a room that's about four or five metres high, the sound has no way out. And you have all these signals, the drums, the bass player, the pianist. There's no room for all these sounds. So they take them all, they put them in tiny little rooms and they separate them. So there's no bass sound in the saxophone mic, there's no saxophone sound in the piano mic, which was an essential ingredient in the making of acoustic albums for decades. And what you get is this very flat, dead sound where the drums, when they hit instead of a "boom", you hear "touc touc".

And then they added the reverberation to try to make it sound louder. But when you record in a small room and put in reverb, it sounds like a person in a cave getting further and further away. So the only real solution is to go back to big rooms. But most musicians don't care that much about sound. They're so interested in data, that sound is not their obsession. My father was one of them. He would record in a bathroom and say "Yeah, that sounds good" because he was interested in what he was playing, not really in the sound. I think as he got older, he began to understand the value of the sound...


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