It’s sixty-two degrees and raining in downtown Durham, North Carolina, on a Tuesday in mid-October. At noon members of the Branford Marsalis Quartet gather at the former St. Joseph’s African Methodist Episcopal church, built in 1891, now converted into the Hayti Heritage Center, an arts-and-community nonprofit. Their goal is to record a new album over the next few days.
When Marsalis moved his family to Durham from New York a decade ago, the local press assumed he was replacing the retiring director of Duke’s jazz department, saxophonist Paul Jeffrey. But Marsalis, who’d grown up in Louisiana, simply wanted to return to the South and picked Raleigh-Durham because the area had an airport large enough to get him anywhere he needed to go. Later, he began teaching part-time in the noted jazz program at the historically black North Carolina Central University, which is a mile down the road from Hayti.
The original St. Joseph’s sanctuary remains intact: a wood-plank stage, hardwood pews, a balcony, chandeliers, and lots of stained glass. Marsalis began recording albums here in 2006 when he noticed that the room had a unique quality: there is no reverb at low decibel levels; it grows gradually with the sound.
His road manager, Roderick Ward, and sound engineer, Rob Hunter—who have been with Marsalis for twenty-seven and twenty-two years, respectively—spent two days creating a recording studio on the sanctuary’s stage and in adjoining rooms, hauling in seventy crates of equipment and cables and renting a Steinway grand from Hopper Piano and Organ in Raleigh. It’s the sixth time they’ve transformed this space. The advantage of working in Hayti, says Hunter, is that “we can build a studio the way we want to, rather than trying to adapt to an established studio’s specifications.” “The disadvantage,” he adds, chuckling, “is that we have to build a studio.”
I asked Marsalis if he had planned any overarching themes for this recording session. “Musicians who talk about their concept—that’s why all their songs sound the same,” he said. “We select good songs and we play them to the best of our ability. Then we move on to another song and do it again. That’s our concept.”
The 2006 recording, Braggtown, named for a Durham neighborhood, indicates the extremes this band can achieve using that method. It opens with a pulverizing twelve-minute Coltrane eruption that Marsalis calls “Jack Baker” (Baker was a black porn star known for masturbating in the background of a film’s principle action). It’s followed by “Hope,” a plaintive tune by pianist Joey Calderazzo that builds to an ecstatic lyrical rapture, and then “Fate,” a reflective, crying ballad written by Marsalis and inspired by Wagner. “My music has become a collage of history,” Calderazzo told me. “I’m not a classical pianist but I have a deep love for some of the romantic aspects of classical music—Messiaen, Stravinsky, Ligeti. I’ll try to incorporate them before I’ll try to incorporate somebody like Cecil Taylor. I try to rip off everything that I can. This band encourages that.”
Next is the jazz horror tune “Blakzilla,” by the band’s former drummer, Jeff “Tain” Watts. I once heard Marsalis introduce the song to an audience by saying, “If you need to go to the bathroom, you might want to go now.” Then comes a stunning change of pace: “O Solitude,” a delicate seventeenth-century English vocal piece by Henry Purcell that Marsalis renders with a sweet, sensitive recital on soprano saxophone (reflecting his work in recent years with chamber-music ensembles and symphonies), before switching to tenor sax for a moody finish. The album closes with “Black Elk Speaks,” an apocalyptic, fourteen-minute wipeout by bassist Eric Revis that sounds like a cross between late Coltrane and Messiaen’s “Quartet for the End of Time.”
“Our methodology is ancient,” Marsalis explains. “We study everything. Great writers do the same thing. A writer writes, a writer also studies writing. Shakespeare read Plutarch. Your ability to communicate ideas grows the more you study and absorb other elements. You learn how to approach things in new and different ways. You have more elements in your repertoire.”
If Braggtown were a novel it might be something like David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, a sequence of seemingly unrelated pieces that unfolds into a unified force. The music—from tender to violent, from seventeenth-century England to Jim Crow America to multicultural chaos—is held together by the musicians’ collective voice. But when I explained to Marsalis the novelistic coherence I hear in the album’s sequences, he says it’s unintentional. “There’s freedom in knowing your record isn’t going to sell,” he reasons. “You don’t have to worry about it. You might as well play the best music you can play and forget about everything else. I like working that way. That’s what we do.”
Marsalis admits it wasn’t until 1999, when he was almost forty, that he finally dedicated himself to his craft. Before that, living in Los Angeles and New York, working with Sting, playing on The Tonight Show, running his own band, and making numerous celebrity appearances with bands like the Grateful Dead, he relied on natural talent and a background in R&B, rock, and funk. He learned how to get by; he had a lot of fun. But as he approached middle age he decided that wasn’t good enough. When he left New York for Durham, it was a self-punishing trip to the woodshed. That his woodshed sits on a Tom Fazio golf course didn’t hurt. Ten years later, it’s clear he made the right move: his band is peaking, and his handicap is approaching single digits.
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In the fall of 2006, I followed this quartet on the road for two weeks, including fourteen sets at the Jazz Standard. Marsalis operates in a strange obscurity. His band is among the best, most diverse, and most challenging in the world, but his fame attracts a live audience that often appreciates his celebrity over his music. During a Tuesday night set, I witnessed a dramatic collision between the two elements. The quartet walked onstage and launched into a wild, ecstatic, fifteen-minute version of “Jack Baker.” The audience was knocked back; they weren’t prepared. They came for The Tonight Show and they got The Shining.
After the set I approached Marsalis in the green room: “Man, the patrons were just sitting down for a glass of wine and a fine meal and you guys chopped their heads off.”
“Eat this, motherfuckerrrrs!” he growled.
Not long after, I gave my niece, then in her early twenties, a copy of Braggtown. Her favorite bands at the time were Mars Volta and Radiohead. She later e-mailed me: “I had no idea jazz was this exciting.”
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The quartet noodles on the stage of the Hayti sanctuary, with six or so people in the hall. Finally, Marsalis says, “All right, let’s do it.” It’s take one of about forty to come before the week is over.
The first piece they record is an intricate, unnamed original by Calderazzo. It’s new to the band. There are false starts, start-overs, and several complete takes that are deemed inadequate. The take that satisfies them is passionate and lyrical. It’s a rigorous beginning.
After working through the challenge of Calderazzo’s new song, the next selection is familiar: Thelonious Monk’s “Teo,” which the band has featured in recent gigs. The first take is electrifying, and it bears Monk’s trademark hard, swinging rhythm, something often missing in contemporary covers. Marsalis sounds like Sonny Rollins; the band follows.
I ask twenty-year-old wunderkind drummer Justin Faulkner what artists Marsalis has made him listen to during his two and a half years with the quartet. “Ahmad Jamal,” he says. “At first I thought it sounded corny. But as I kept listening, [Jamal’s drummer] Vernell Fournier changed my life. Branford also made me listen to Jo Jones’s solo record, and I love it. Beyond jazz, there’s all kinds of stuff Branford made me check out that most jazz students wouldn’t admit to listening to, like Led Zeppelin and the old hip-hop artist Dr. Octagon. I’ve learned to listen to everything and take it all seriously.”
Day two begins with a composition by Revis. It has a quirky melody and powerful rhythm and sounds like something Andrew Hill might compose, a Monk-like blend of blues and hopscotch fun. The band is struggling with it. “I can’t tell what y’all are playing,” Marsalis says. And at another point: “The shit ain’t easy. The good shit never is. But we want to make it appear easy, and we aren’t doing that right now.” After another couple of unsuccessful takes, he says, “It’s not happening. There’s an energy to this tune that we don’t have right now. Let’s move on. We’ll revisit this one.”
Revis tells me later, “Branford has always had the most composure of anyone I’ve ever experienced in the recording studio. After all these years, it has rubbed off on the band.” Calderazzo echoes Revis: “Branford’s role as a band leader has become a situation where he trusts us to do what we do, and he lets us go. The message is that it’s about playing music freely—let’s play our asses off.”
Sam Stephenson is the author of The Jazz Loft Project. He is currently at work on a biography of W. Eugene Smith for Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All photographs by Frank Hunter.