From jazz to classical, Branford Marsalis stays busy

Show set for Manship Theatre

Jazz saxophonist Branford Marsalis just returned to the U.S. from London. He spent challenging days there studying Baroque ornamentation with flutist Stephen Preston. This week he’s playing jazz gigs in Puerto Rico, Florida and Indiana. Next week he’s in Baton Rouge and Florida again. The following week he goes to Georgia, North Carolina and Virginia.

Marsalis, the eldest son of New Orleans’ modern-jazz pianist, composer and educator Ellis Marsalis, moves between playing jazz with his Branford Marsalis Quartet and performing classical concertos with symphony orchestras. He also composes music for the Broadway stage and teaches.

Before his two Wednesday shows at the Manship Theatre in Baton Rouge, Marsalis will join his brothers Wynton, Delfeayo and Jason, their father, Ellis, and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra in concert Saturday at Butler University in Indianapolis.

The Marsalis family and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra being the great jazz musicians they are, only a minimum of musical preparation is necessary for the Indianapolis concert.

A Marsalis family concert at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., for instance, which can be heard in the 2009 album, “Music Redeems,” came together at 2 a.m. the night before the event.

“Wynton and I both flew straight into D.C., from Europe that day,” Marsalis said. “We know what we’re doing.”

An accomplished musician at 53, the Durham, N.C.-based Marsalis nevertheless makes time to practice hours a day, every day.

“At my age, this is that period where everybody starts knowing what they’re good at and resting on it,” he said. “Some people get there even sooner.”

For Marsalis, however, being satisfied with one’s skills and knowledge signifies the end of artistry.

“A lot of my friends will say, ‘Yeah, I want to go on vacation. I don’t have to take my work with me. The horn stays in the corner.’ But I do have to take my work with me,” he said.

Engagements with orchestras for performances of music by Aaron Copland, Claude Debussy, Jacques Ibert, Gustav Mahler, Vaughn Williams and others provide great motivation to practice.

“This is the great thing about classical music,” Marsalis said. “Because it’s so demanding, I’m forced to practice. Even when I’m traveling, I get to the venue about four o’clock and I practice and I work on stuff.”

His recent study of Baroque ornamentation was intensely difficult, but worth it, Marsalis said.

“I took that first lesson and I had the biggest headache,” he said. “And I don’t get headaches! But my brain was scrambling, trying to piece together what this guy was teaching me. It wasn’t a good feeling in the middle of it but, when I woke up the next day, I was like, ‘Man, that’s living.’ It’s always rewarding for me when I’m out of my league.”

While in London, Marsalis and a friend, British jazz pianist Julian Joseph, attended a performance of Baroque maestro George Frideric Handel’s lesser-known opera, “Rodelinda.” It was inspirational, he said.

Marsalis hears similarities between Baroque music and jazz. Contemporaries Handel and J.S. Bach, for instance, “they were great improvisers and great players. And Handel turned that music out like it was water. A lot of people would say Prince is a genius because he just churns those four-minute tunes out. Handel churned out fully orchestrated operas, so much so that a lot of them haven’t been recorded yet.”

A genuine love of music keeps Marsalis motivated.

“When I go to these conservatories,” he said, “one person will always say, ‘You want me to do all this studying, but how am I going to get paid doing this?’ So then it’s clear that finding a job is their motivation. But for me, I really, really love music. I haven’t lost that.”

There’s also a selflessness in Marsalis’ approach to music. He’s more akin to a conservatory-trained classical musician dedicated to realizing a composer’s intentions than a glory seeker on the reinvention highway.

“A lot of people in jazz are always about this desire to move the music forward,” he said. “That brings glory to them, as opposed to them playing the music as well as it can be played, which brings glory to the people who came before them.”