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Sax appeal is the real deal for Branford Marsalis
Sax appeal is the real deal for Branford Marsalis
Branford Marsalis and jazz: The two are indistinguishable. ORLANDO, Fla. - Branford Marsalis and jazz: The two are indistinguishable.

It has been his artistic voice for decades. It pulses through his veins, inherited from his father, the distinguished jazz educator, pianist and pedagogue, Ellis Marsalis. Three of his younger brothers also are respected jazz musicians, most notably the blazing trumpeter, composer, educator and self-appointed spokesman for the genre, Wynton.

Yet, relatively few people are aware of Branford's recent escapades in the more traditional realm of the classical sax, an often-ignored portion of the musical lexicography.

In his relentless drive to push for higher ground and venture into unfamiliar territory, Marsalis drop-kicked himself into an art form that will take decades of work to master, and to gain the respect of fellow classical saxophonists.

By taking himself into a sector of the musical language that he never seriously studied, Marsalis says, he confronted a challenge from which he had previously shied away.

"Well, I knew it was hard," Marsalis says between bites of sandwich and fries at the Westin Grand Bohemian hotel in downtown Orlando last week. "I was just living such a frivolous life. Why put in that kind of effort if you don't have to? Which is a very common (reaction) in our society. I just avoided it."

So, Marsalis embraced the crucible to propel himself into a higher orbit.

"I was only interested in seeing how good of a musician I could be."

He has assumed this undertaking with an almost obsessive sense of humility that would have garnered even Miles Davis' grudging approval.

"I'm practicing my (butt) off," he says. "I'm trying to get better. I'm approaching the music very seriously. Given the fact that I'm not a fabulous classical player and I'm doing this at an old age, every orchestra that I've played in basically thinks it's like Liberace showing up to play `Rhapsody in Blue.' And I don't blame them."

To that end, he says, he's taking sax lessons with several of the nation's finest instructors, and practices daily. At 44 and with three children, however, he admits that he doesn't have as much time as he would like to devote to it. After all, even Grammy-winning jazz musicians have to change diapers when they're fathers.

Marsalis never really studied classical music formally, he says, even when he was at Berklee College of Music in Boston. Yet it was always something he appreciated, respected and listened to.

"Wynton studied classical a lot when we were kids, and I used to just steal his lesson plans and apply (them) to what I did," Marsalis says. "For me, a lot of my experience in classical music is listening to so much that I have a sense of how it's supposed to sound. I don't try to subscribe to any technical philosophy. I just listen to a lot of music and basically try to make my instrument sound like the things I like."

Marsalis' bounce from the swinging side of music to the square was a simple switch hit thanks to his open-minded upbringing, which exposed him to a kaleidoscope of musical styles, he says. Even though jazz was the common denominator in his hometown of New Orleans, he was never pigeonholed into one category.

"It's not a huge mental leap, switching between the two," he says. "I understand the similarities between the two. ... Because my experience in classical music is based on a significant number of years of listening to the music, as opposed to just reading the music, I don't think that the leap is significant."

Many of the Western world's musical instruments live a dual-purpose life that has gained acceptance in society, thanks to the ebb and flow of jazz's evolution. The trumpet, trombone, piano, bass, guitar - even clarinet - are respected in both their classical and jazz incarnations. Yet the saxophone, universally labeled strictly a jazz instrument, has forever been the underdog of the straight-music community. It's almost a musical faux pas to use the words "sax" and "classical" in the same sentence.

But the genre does exist, and the saxophone is, in fact, an accepted classical instrument.

A relative newcomer (compared with its much older string, percussion and other wind siblings), the young upstart didn't burst onto the scene until about 150 years ago. By that time, the classical style already had established its roots and traditions tenfold - there was little room for the half-reed, half-brass instrument.

Today, despite the efforts of a few innovative composers, the sax is still largely overlooked as a classical instrument and hasn't been fully integrated into the symphony orchestra.

"When one thinks of the saxophone, jazz music is the first style that comes to mind," says George Weremchuk, saxophonist and assistant professor of saxophone at the University of Central Florida. "But, whenever I play the saxophone in the classical style, people who have never heard that always respond positively. They say that they never thought the saxophone could sound like that."

Marsalis attributes part of the sax's classical obscurity to orchestra musicians' dislike of its unique tone.

"Basically, the premise that I get from the musicians that play in the orchestra is that they don't like the way the saxophone sounds," Marsalis says. "I know a lot of saxophone players don't want to hear that, but the sound that (they) choose to employ is not a sound that is roundly applauded by the orchestral community."

Marsalis says that the instrument's pariah status is because of the lack of truly masterful compositions that highlight its capabilities.

"It seems as though the focus of classical saxophone pieces is on the technical possibilities of the instrument at the expense of the musical possibilities of the instrument," he says.

"I'm not trying to prove anything. I'm just trying to play music."

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Copyright 2005, KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE BUSINESS NEWS