The Grammy-award-winning saxophonist, bandleader and composer Branford Marsalis has collaborated with some of the biggest names in music over his nearly 40-year career. And we’re not just talking about jazz artists, either. In addition to jazz masters like Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, and his younger brother Wynton, Marsalis has worked with Sting, Mary-Chapin Carpenter, Stevie Wonder, Bruce Hornsby, and the Grateful Dead, among many others.
Marsalis has also moved into the classical music realm, working with the New York Philharmonic, Philharmonia Brasileira and the North Carolina Symphony.
But despite all of those high-profile collaborations, he always returns to his trusty quartet at some point, an adventurous group of players that has been together in one form or another since the mid-1980s.
The current quartet of Marsalis, pianist Joey Calderazzo, bassist Eric Revis and drummer Justin Faulkner has been in place for more than a decade, and that’s the group he’ll be performing with at the Peace Center Jan. 15.
The quartet has made a series of daring jazz albums that showcase some truly remarkable playing and incredibly melodic songwriting, the most recent of which is 2019’s “The Secret Between the Shadow and the Soul.” And yet, despite that track record of excellence, Marsalis says he gets asked one question about the quartet constantly.
“It’s a funny question that jazz musicians get,” he says. “No one else gets this question. People say, ‘You’ve been playing with the same people for a long time, don’t you want to change it up a little bit?’”
Marsalis seems both bemused and confused by the question.
“No one expects the New York Philharmonic to change it up, or The Rolling Stones,” he says. “If you’re the Dave Matthews Band, you never have to worry about being asked, ‘Aren’t you tired of playing with the same guys?’ But in jazz, there’s this weird-ass question: ‘Don’t you want to play with different people?’”
Marsalis compares his relationship with his quartet to a good conversation.
“If you’re a fan of philosophy, and you get invited to party, you’re not just going to start talking about philosophy,” he says, “because you’re not going to know who’s into it. So you engage in small talk with people until you perhaps bump into a like-minded person. When I play with new musicians and we play from the classic jazz canon of the ‘40s, it’s just a constant conversation in small talk.”
But with long-term collaborators, Marsalis says, the conversation goes deeper.
“That’s the one thing that having a regular working band is about,” he says. “We have a shared vocabulary. Which means that we all have an understanding of 50 years of music, not just 20. Once you understand the vocabulary, you don’t have to micromanage. It handles itself. When we play a new song, we just play it, and what happens happens, because we understand each other.”
Marsalis says that thanks to that strong level of communication with his quartet, the live shows can be as wide-ranging as their own imaginations.
“We probably have two or three songs that we play consistently,” he says, “and we’ll always throw in a song or two from the ‘20s or ‘30s, because the melodies are so infectious and even the people who don’t know them know them, because they’ve heard them their whole lives. And then we’ll branch out. I’m a fan of jazz, but I’m not a fan of a specific period of jazz. There’s no one decade that represents me personally, so the whole thing’s wide open. A lot of our concerts are about pacing; we make sure that no two songs in the set sound the same.”
What: An Evening with Branford Marsalis
Where: Peace Center, 300 S. Main St., Greenville
When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 15
Info: 864-467-3000, https://www.peacecenter.org