Branford Marsalis decided to quit his coveted job as the musical director of The Tonight Show" with Jay Leno in 1994 after playing Jacques Ibert's concerto for alto saxophone with the San Francisco Symphony under the baton of another far-ranging jazz musician, Bobby McFerrin. The performance pleased the audience and critics, but not the artist.
It was dreadful, man. I hated the way I played," says Marsalis, a forthright and funny man who's unsparing in his praise for things he admires and blunt about those he doesn't. My tone was not good and my technique was shabby. I had to choose - I was either going to be a musician or stay in show business. After that concert, I decided I wanted to be a musician."
Nearly 20 years after the Ibert kicked his ass and sent him to the woodshed, Marsalis - who'd become famous in the 1980s playing brilliant Milesian '60s music with his prodigious brother, Wynton, and bringing improvisational fire to Sting's post-Police band - is playing with the technical mastery and emotional maturity that produces great music.
You hear some on Marsalis' last two recordings: Songs of Mirth and Melancholy," a beautiful duo recording with the prime pianist Joey Calderazzo that features songs by him, Calderazzo, Brahms and Wayne Shorter, and the just-released disc by the Branford Marsalis Quartet (of which Calderazzo is a longtime member), Four MFs Playin' Tunes," which is full of fresh, stirring and swinging music.