Branford Marsalis has a lot more in common with his brother, Wynton, than some may assume. When Branford started working with Sting in 1985, and later became the first musical director of “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno,” he was introduced to casual observers as the accessible, mainstream jazz guy who wasn’t afraid of pop music. Wynton directed Jazz at Lincoln Center; Branford stretched the bounds of fusion with Buckshot LeFonque and sat in with the Grateful Dead.
But Branford champions a populist vision of jazz that emphasizes its pre-bebop roots, remaining critical of players who focus only on the latest new thing. While sharing his warm saxophone sound in his acoustic quartet and in a long list of high-profile collaborations, he’s expanded his expertise by writing for the stage (garnering a Tony Award nomination for his score for a revival of August Wilson’s “Fences”) and sitting in with symphony orchestras.
Marsalis and his quartet play the Sanders Theatre on Thursday. He spoke with the Globe from his home in North Carolina.
Q. It looks like your repertoire in the classical arena keeps growing.
A. I leave [the program] up to [each orchestra]. And what it forces me to do is continue to learn music. I tend to think of it as short-term misery for long-term gain. And when I say short term, I’m thinking decades.
It’s made my jazz playing a lot better because I’m more efficient. So when we’re playing a ballad and the music gets really soft — to create tension in a soft piece, it’s the opposite of how we think about it from our rock ’n’ roll upbringing. You do it with fewer notes, not more notes. You can play one note very soft, and you’re not using vibrato, and it doesn’t quiver and shake after about 20 seconds. That is the benefit of playing classical music. You’ll probably find that most guys playing jazz won’t be able to do that.
Q. Why does it take more discipline to play simply?
A. Have you heard any jazz records? Then you know the answer. Everybody wants to play fast. Then you’re in a situation where you’re playing a gig and you’re playing for your colleagues. . . . You play really fast and two guys in the back go: “Woo!” For a regular person, it’s just a load of notes. It’s a pile of [expletive], actually. They’re not impressed. It’s like an actor saying he’s going to become the greatest actor in the world by learning every word in the dictionary.
People want to cry. They don’t want to be wowed with technical brilliance. They don’t want to have to study a syllabus to figure out what is going on with the music. What you have are a bunch of musicians who have convinced themselves that the essential part of jazz is improvisation, which allows them then to dismiss the first 40 years of it and focus on the part that makes them feel comfortable. But in the end, the thing that audiences really like about jazz is what happened in the first 40 years.
Q. But as a young musician you had to go through a period of figuring that out too, right?
A. When I was coming up I didn’t feel the desire to cloak myself in the mantra of newness and dismiss learning as neoclassicism. When Dizzy Gillespie told me he didn’t hear any blues in my playing, I had to be honest because I didn’t hear any, either. A lot of my students, you tell them that, but they don’t want to learn that. Which is why it’s so easy for some people to dismiss Louis Armstrong as irrelevant to modern trumpet playing.
Q. What happens when a new generation of musicians only studies the innovators and not the roots of the music?
A. That’s basically heavy metal, guys who grew up listening to Led Zeppelin without listening to the Delta blues. So they say they want to be like Led Zeppelin but they sound nothing like Led Zeppelin. Because they didn’t use the same ethno-musicological information that Led Zeppelin used. It’s a disconnected version.
Q. When you crossed over more into pop culture by playing with Sting or taking the “Tonight Show” job, did you grow as a musician from those experiences?
A. You don’t grow as a musician by playing less. Well, Sting’s thing was great. It was just what I needed at the time. In jazz there’s so much information that you can get bogged down by it. And my solos were definitely getting bogged down because I had too many options, and I just could never finish them. When you have to deal with the discipline of playing a song and you have to get your point across in a truncated time — when I came back I was just spitting [expletive] out of the horn. It was like: Whoa! “The Tonight Show” was great because it was one of the few times when I was 100 percent into unadulterated entertainment, and I realized I’m more of a musician than an entertainer.
Q. You’ve collaborated with artists playing so many different styles of music. What connects it all for you?
A. It’s 12 notes, dude. That’s all you got. There’s no magic in it. What’s different is how they sound. I play the same 12 notes with the Eugene Symphony that I played with the Grateful Dead; they just sound differently. And because of how I grew up, I know what they’re supposed to sound like.Interview has been condensed and edited. Jeremy D. Goodwin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.