Branford Marsalis on His Unlikely Collaboration With the Grateful Dead

With the upcoming release of the Dead's 23-disc set 'Spring 1990 (The Other One),' the jazz legend recalls his Nassau Coliseum guest spot

Branford Marsalis, The Grateful Dead
Frans Schellekens/Redferns
Branford Marsalis
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"Guys who play jazz and don't only listen to jazz knew those guys," saxophonist Branford Marsalis says, starting to explain how he left an indelible mark on the performing history of the Grateful Dead, on March 29th, 1990 at Nassau Coliseum in Long Island, New York. Via a few phone calls and distant, mutual admiration, Marsalis – a prolific and acclaimed jazzman from New Orleans with deep roots and experience in his city's R&B and funk – was invited by the Dead's resident jazz head, bassist Phil Lesh, to sit in with the band that night, initially for one tune late in the first set: "Bird Song," a Dead stage regular from guitarist Jerry Garcia's 1972 solo LP, Garcia.

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But right away, Marsalis recalls, "Jerry and I hit it off. He noticed that a lot of things I was playing were based on things I heard him playing. He was grinning." During the set break, the Dead insisted Marsalis join them for the whole second set, a 90-minute whirl of spontaneous exchange and communal orbit – out of the beatific jaunt "Eyes of the World" into the eccentric rhythm of "Estimated Prophet," through the no-beat space of a then-rare "Dark Star," ultimately into the straight-up bar-band soul of Bobby "Blue" Bland's "Turn on Your Love Light" – that immediately became tapers' gold, traded and treasured as a highpoint of the Dead's autumn years.

On September 9th, the Dead and Rhino Records release that Nassau show in its entirety for the first time with seven other concerts from the tour as a 23-CD set, Spring 1990 (The Other One). The deluxe limited-edition set, now available for pre-orders from Dead.net for $239.98, is the successor to 2012's sold-out Spring 1990, which featured the rest of the Dead's March-April East Coast leg that year. The March 29th date will also be issued separately as a three-CD set, Wake Up to Find Out 3/29/90 (after a lyric in "Eyes of the World"). Pre-orders are now available on the Dead's website.

The Grateful Dead with Branford Marsalis, "Estimated Prophet" (Nassau Coliseum, 3/29/90)

"That was the high point for that era," guitarist Bob Weir said in 2012 of the tour. Three months later, keyboard player Brent Mydland died of a drug overdose. The band officially ended after Garcia's passing in 1995. But "we were feeling our oats" in March and April of '90, Weir said. "We were real open, so it wasn't hard on stage to hear suggestions, either in the back of your head or in what someone else was playing that would take us to a new place."

March 29th was the crystallization of that bravado, charged by the addition of Marsalis' intuitive snake dance on soprano sax and his own sense of wonder at the elevated conversations going on around him. "It makes sense," Marsalis remarks during an interview about his night at Nassau, when told of Lesh's original model for the Dead's improvising aesthetic: John Coltrane's classic modal-liberation quartet of the early 1960s. "The one thing about the Dead was the level of intensity. Harmonically, most of the music was simple – one, two chords. But the intensity was off the chain."

"Who Are These People?"

What were your first impressions when you got to Nassau Coliseum?
I walked backstage and Phil goes, "Hey, man, glad you could make it." The rest of the guys were like, "We don't know who you are, but it's nice to meet you." [Laughs] I came up for "Bird Song," and after the set was over, I said, "Thanks for letting me play, guys." And they're like, 'No, no, stay! Play the second half of the show. We'll do 'Dark Star.'"

That had no significance to me. I'm like, "'Dark Star'? Okay. What is it?" "Oh, you're gonna love it. It's free, it's out." Great, I can play out." [Laughs] They start playing that lick, and the audience goes fucking bananas. Later, I started getting these phone calls on my private number: "Man, you were great last night. Thanks for getting them to play 'Dark Star'. They haven't played it in six months.' I'm like, "Who are these people?"

What did you know about the Dead, their music and their fans before you walked on stage at Nassau Coliseum?
What I knew was the "Truckin'" era. I was an anthropologist that night, just checking this shit out. But it was a serious throwback to how I view music. There wasn't a set list. They barely spoke to the audience. And the audience didn't perceive that as disrespectful. The crowd was there to listen. When most people go to concerts, they say, "I'm going to see such-and-such." Dead fans – they went to hear the band.

What about the improvising? Was there a different language or exchange in rock, with the Dead, from what you knew in jazz and your own groups?
This wasn't foreign territory. I'd already toured in Sting's band. And I didn't grow up just playing jazz. This was like going home. New Orleans is a culture where it's all there. We don't have those sharp divisions. With the Dead, I could imagine one guy as the folk guy, another as the jazz guy, someone as the rock guy. There was almost nothing they couldn't play – and make the shit sound authentic. When they played a song by the Band or Bob Dylan, they played it with the same spirit as the Band or Dylan. They didn't feel the need to write their own arrangement of it.

They were all listeners. There is a point where musicians who establish themselves stop listening to music and start listening to their own rhetoric. The Dead didn't do that. It was obvious in the way they approached a song.

Colors and Soul

In the second set at Nassau, you played over and through a lot of unusual rhythms, phases and avenues, including the zero gravity of "Space."
It was all up to them, because I wasn't familiar with the material.

But you found a constant comfort and energy in there.
That 7/4 time [in "Estimated Prophet"] was not a big deal to a guy who plays jazz. Where jazz guys fuck up playing with pop and rock bands is they seem insulted by the simplicity. In the jazz guy's world, there isn't a song that exists that I can't make better with my know-how.

The hardest thing to understand is that it doesn't always need your innovation. The trick for me was not to go for all the little jazz styling. It's about playing the song – what you hear instead of what you know.

How would you characterize the Dead as players?
Phil was a very melodic bassist. But what he played was always grounded. He knew when he could wander. But when the music needed a rock-solid foundation, he provided that. Jerry had a unique style of soloing – very percussive, triplet-heavy. But he always found a solo to match the style of the song. There are a lot of musicians with a one-style-fits-all mentality. I did a thing with John Lee Hooker once. He said, 'You can play whatever key y'all want. I'll play in E." It's not that it didn't feel good. It felt fucking great. But whatever song you played, it was going to be in E, and the time was going to be relative.

Jerry found a way to adapt to whatever the situation was and add a color. When he switched to the [MIDI] guitar synth, I never felt he needed it. Intrusion is too strong a word. It obstructed his sound. But I guess when you've been doing the same shit for 30 years, you need to get something to spike it up a little.

You played with the Dead again on New Year's Eve 1990, then at shows in 1991, '93 and '94. What changed each time? And did you feel more at ease?
I felt that ease from when I first up there. I understood what they were doing stylistically. I understood the music, and harmonically it was simple enough that I could catch it quick. And it was always different, because they used so many damn songs. That's what I loved the most.

They obviously felt comfortable with you too.
There was a thing I learned once, playing in New Orleans. And it's funny because when Clint Eastwood did that movie, Bird [a 1988 dramatic account of the life of saxophonist Charlie Parker], there was a scene where Bird is playing behind a singer, and the singer turns to him and says, "Don't play that bullshit behind me while I'm singing." I was like, "Man, do I know that story."

I was 14 years old, playing with a singer. I was really upset afterward. I told my dad [pianist-educator Ellis Marsalis], "She said I was playing bullshit." And he said, "The singer is sacrosanct. You're in the back. If you're gonna play with singers, complement the singer."

The thing the Dead appreciated about me, if I can blow my own horn about anything, is that when I played with them, I was actually playing with them. I wasn't just playing my thing.

Are you surprised that the Nassau concert has become so prized by Dead fans?
Yeah! I had no context. I got people calling my house: "That was a fantastic show." Hey, how did you get this number? "We're everywhere, man. But don't worry about it. We're harmless."

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