Branford Marsalis set tone for Ma Rainey’s style authenticity

Branford Marsalis seems comfortable with any musical style. While this claim hasn’t been fully tested (we’re still waiting on his ska punk record), Marsalis’ elasticity has expanded to encompass hard bop with Art Blakey, French classical music with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, pop with Sting, hippie jams with the Grateful Dead, and repeated soundtrack work with Spike Lee.
When it came to writing music for “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” the new Netflix film starring Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman, Marsalis — unsurprisingly — found he had a solid base of 1920s blues knowledge. But to get the intricacies of the age just right he dove into research.
“My focus was on authenticity, stylistic authenticity,” Marsalis told the Boston Herald.
Going back to recordings of the ’20s, many of which he knew but hadn’t listened to in years, he was astounded by how consistently high the level of playing was.
“It wasn’t a video era, so it didn’t really matter how cute you were, it mattered how good you were,” he said. “It was tricky for the guys I hired because they didn’t grow up in the ’20s. It was like we were speaking a language and I told them, ‘Here are the 15 words you can not use and here are the 10 words you always use.’ The moment the musicians started playing instinctively, they started using the 15 words you never use.”
The film, based on the August Wilson play of the same name, centers on a tense and telling Chicago recording session with Rainey and her band in 1927. Back then, recording sessions were expensive and rare, with no overdubs or corrections, singer and band needed to come together as one.
“Everyone involved had to play it well and play it well the first or second time around,” Marsalis said. “There was no, ‘Oh, we’ll fix it in post,’ because there was no post.”
The talent Marsalis surrounds himself with can drop into any style from the last half century. But sitting tightly in a groove can be tricky, especially for players at ease while ripping out a solo next to Herbie Hancock, Willie Nelson or St. Vincent.
“I think the piano player probably had the hardest job,” Marsalis said. “In modern jazz, the left hand is almost irrelevant. In modern jazz, and in my opinion, it’s to the detriment of the music, the focus is more on soloing than it is on playing good tunes with a good beat. The ’20s music was exclusively about playing good tunes with a good beat. So the piano player suddenly went to using the left and right hand all the time in a stride fashion. It was physically taxing and it was mentally taxing on all the musicians because of the need for restraint.”
“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” gives Davis and Boseman space for virtuoso performances, highly controlled performances that look like unhinged mania. Marsalis and his bandmates’ economy and discipline offer a fitting counterpoint to Davis and Boseman’s frenzy.

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