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Saturday, September 24, 2011

Physician, Heal Thyself

So Branford is at it again......... He gave his verdict on students a while back (‘students today are completely full of shit’), and now his wrath has become broader and is turned on jazz music itself (‘There’s so little of it that’s actually good, that when it’s good, it shocks me’). In doing this he joined another A-list musician, Kurt Rosenwinkel who recently created a furore by stating that most jazz sucks He recently recanted a little, (didn’t have the courage of his convictions once the proverbial shit hit the fan?), but unfortunately this phenomenon of well known musicians, (who really should have better things to do other than pronouncing judgement on everybody else), lashing out at all and sundry doesn’t seem to be going away.

I don’t think any of these guys should be wasting their time thumping the pulpit like this (don’t they have any music they could be working on.....?), but I think it’s particularly true of Branford. At least with Kurt you’re dealing with an influential musician, but with Branford? He is certainly a famous musician and he is a also a great musician, and a great player of the saxophone. And the combination of his abilities and his association with Wynton, the Tonight Show, Sting etc will ensure he’ll always be a crowd-puller and (luckily for his students) will never have to take a teaching job to make ends meet. But Branford, for all his fame and ability, has never had an influence on the jazz mainstream – his music, for all its accomplishment, has always been too derivative.

The closest that Branford has gotten to being musically influential on the international jazz scene would have been during the time he and Wynton were doing the wonderful ‘Black Codes’ music in the early to mid-80s – more than twenty years ago. That music had a genuine impact and you can hear its influence even today. But since then Branford’s jazz playing has been remarkable for how unremarkable it is. Yes he’s a virtuoso, yes he knows the history of the saxophone and can demonstrate different stylistic influences at will. Yes his quartet members can all really play. No question. But when was the last time the jazz world was excitedly anticipating the release of Branford’s next album? Branford dismisses the idea that jazz has to always be new to be good (something I’d agree with actually....), but in his case it comes over as being one of those ‘well he would say that, wouldn’t he?’ things, since he himself has not produced anything new, (as opposed to well played), in a very long time.

Even as a tenor player – and he really is a virtuoso – he’s not particularly influential. He’s been on the scene for a long time, but I’ve never heard a young saxophonist who sounded like they were influenced by Branford. He’s a great player, he’s in the public eye more than almost any other jazz saxophonist, with a public recognition that goes way beyond the narrow jazz audience. So why isn’t he influential on players of his own instrument? Because, for all his accomplishment and virtuosity, he’s too derivative. I think he’s a stylist – I think I’d recognise his playing when I heard it, (as long as he wasn’t doing one of his all too common Branford does Sonny, or Branford does Trane schticks), but it’s not different enough and hasn’t enough individuality to attract young players in the way that Joe Lovano, Mark Turner and Chris Potter do.

Of course Branford is entitled to his opinion – after all, what is a blog such as this one if not an opinion piece? And he could well point the finger at me and ask what have I ever done that was influential? Fair enough, but then again I’m not the one pronouncing judgement on the entire jazz scene and telling everyone that they’re not good enough. The artists that people like Branford name-check as being exemplars of the highest level of jazz achievement, and to whom they look to for inspiration (sometimes to the point of blatant imitation) - people such as Rollins or Coltrane - never spent any of their time criticising their colleagues. They were far more concerned with developing their own music than telling everyone else how to do it.

Even if Branford were a much more influential and innovative musician than he is, it would be drag to have him pontificating on ‘the problem with jazz’ in the way that he has. The fact that he has done so little truly original work over the past twenty five years puts him in a very weak position to be pointing the finger at others - at least artistically, commercially of course we could all take lessons from him.

If Branford really wants to change the music, it would be much better if he found something in his own music that interested enough musicians to make them change the way they play. Just telling them, (in an incredibly arrogant way) that they’re all wrong, while presiding over such a narrow bandwidth of artistic achievement himself, is never going to work.

PS. My argument is based around the opinion that Branford’s own musical output puts him in a weak position to tell others what to do, for a reasoned response to the arguments that Branford puts forward, have a look at Peter Hum’s blog


  1. Interestingly enough I suspect that Coltrane and Rollins would have been very 'out there' in their time. However, if they were producing music nowadays they would also be in the same seat as Branford, just mainstream players.

    Nice post, thanks.

  2. I just posted an interview with saxophonist Marcus Strickland on today, and in the longer version (which will be in the print edition in late October/early November), he does cite Branford as an influence and says he actually studied the soprano saxophone with him.

  3. It's more than natural that one that studies closely to someone is going to cite him as an influence.