SAXOPHONIST Branford Marsalis is on a roll that finds him weaving through the wacky worlds of entertainment - in jazz, pop, television, and film - like an ace running-back heading for glory. He's piling up points each time he carries the ball.
Talk about moving in 12 directions at once. This is what his life has been like the last few months: touring to support his new album from Columbia Records, "The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born;" appearing on stage with the Grateful Dead; sharpening his batting eye with ex-New York Mets hitting instructor Bill Robinson; writing music for a Showtime TV movie; wrapping up a blues recording with B. B. King and John Lee Hooker; dodging the lens of documentary filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker; and playing parent to
Reese, a boundless force of nature disguised as a five-year-old.
Now comes the word that the New Orleans reed man, a member of jazz's First Family, is about to join "The Tonight Show" in May, playing Doc Severinsen to Jay Leno's Johnny Carson. It's a monumental opportunity - a changing of the guard in one of America's institutions. Marsalis just happens to be there. No big deal. Speak to him about it and he zip-locks his lips. Nothing is happening yet, he says, because nothing is official.
All well and good, except that Leno's publicity people have placed the story on "Entertainment Tonight" and in every periodical that ever graced a supermarket check-out counter. So, maybe, Marsalis will have something to tell us real soon. His smile could light a canyon.
OK, in the meantime, we'll talk about his new record, a follow-up to last year's "Crazy People Music." And, by the way, he is asked, what does that title, "The Beautyful Ones mean? With a furrowed brow Marsalis shoots from the lip: He has no idea, he never has any idea, he doesn't know why he does the things he does, how can you question creativity, and why would you ask such a dumb question, and on and on and on.
Eventually his mock agitation gives way to a sly grin, and he starts talking about all kinds of things, including why he pushes himself so hard.
"When I was growing up in New Orleans," Marsalis says, "every aspect of life was about 'cutting heads': track, street football, music. It was about rising to the challenge, about being involved in friendly competition so you could prove that you were the best."
That bit of personal history may explain Marsalis's restless nature, why in recent years he has been constantly in motion, enjoying a career voyage that only picked up steam when he left his brother Wynton's band at the height of its early popularity to join forces with pop idol Sting (Branford's decision opened a rift with Wynton that still hasn't healed completely); or why, years later, after he asserted himself among the pop world's hippest stars, he braved the winds of peer ridicule by "abandoning" m usic in favor of acting opportunities with Spike Lee in "School Daze" and Danny DeVito in "Throw Momma From the Train." One could smell a big career brewing. For Marsalis it was merely a matter of "cutting heads."
"Actually, Wynton helped me out on this one," he says. "He helped me take responsibility for things, helped me realize that my life is mine to live or not. He used to say to me, 'When something goes wrong, why do you look around and try to point your finger?' He was right. I figured that my potential is mine to be fulfilled. So why not fulfill it?"
The truth is, with all these extracurricular activities, the kind that some people regard as distractions, Marsalis is still determined to be a consummate musician.
"The Tonight Show" is another step along the way. If he gets the opportunity to influence the amount of jazz that gets programmed on the show, all the better. It wouldn't be the first time a Marsalis was committed to spreading the jazz gospel. (Wynton is a vociferous spokesman on behalf of the music, and father Ellis is the jazz musician-educator in New Orleans.)
For his part, Branford Marsalis loves to show people what he can do, a fact driven home by his opening night performance during the New York leg of his recently completed tour. On that night, Marsalis had his long-time associates with him: bassist Robert Hurst and drummer Jeff (Tain) Watts (both of whom enhance the new album). Watching the guys play perfectly illustrated the competitiveness Marsalis describes, though here it was in the service of high art.
The main combatants on stage were Marsalis and Watts. Each time one declared a musical thought, the other issued a there-you-got-it rebuttal. Watts, energetic though sensitive, almost always originated the exchanges. He served as the percussion architect, building free-floating edifices of rhythm that Marsalis and his saxophone dressed with tuneful melodies. The sound had a shape and a dimension that appeared to occupy space, physically, on the stage. Hurst, the good-soldier mediator, tethered this sonic
construction and kept it from floating out of the building.
When asked about this, Marsalis's muted laugh is equal parts bewilderment and pride. He's not about to buy into a journalist's practice of visualizing everything, especially that which is best heard.
"Let's just say," he offers, talking about himself and his cohorts as they motivate and cajole one another, "we always look to ourselves for inspiration."
Starting in May, 20 million television viewers nightly might just provide another kind of inspiration.