Did anyone notice the Instagram kerfuffle that occupied a few jazz buffs earlier this month? A clip was posted in which Branford Marsalis was shown comparing the title track from John Coltrane’s classic album “Giant Steps” with a handful of similarly classic albums Coltrane made soon afterward with his great 1960s quartet.
Marsalis noted that, while it is loved by musicians, “regular people don’t give a damn about ‘Giant Steps.’ They’ve never even heard it.” He was pointing out the disconnect between some self-absorbed musicians and their audiences. But then he said something his detractors found particularly objectionable. The clip ended with Marsalis endorsing the idea that musicians should learn “Giant Steps” while also off-handedly averring, “It’s math. It’s not music.”
Marsalis, whose quartet will perform a Celebrity Series of Boston concert on Saturday at the Berklee Performance Center, dismissed the resulting tempest in a teapot by phone recently from his home in North Carolina.
“There’s a war in Ukraine. Trust me,” he deadpanned, while tidying up his kitchen before heading to the airport. “A couple of my friends called me with this nonsense about ‘Giant Steps,’ and I just said, ‘Go to YouTube right now. Look at all of the people who can play ‘Giant Steps.’ Look at all the high school kids. Now, put in any movement from ‘A Love Supreme.’ . . . Tell me how many videos you see.”
(As it happens, among the first “Love Supreme” clips that shows up is a live 2003 performance of the entire suite in Amsterdam by an earlier iteration of Marsalis’s quartet.)
“One is hard to negotiate, and the other one is really hard to play,” explains Marsalis.
When playing music that engages audiences is your priority, it helps to have a band like the Marsalis quartet, whose longevity and shared sense of purpose sets it apart. The “new guy,” relatively speaking, drummer Justin Faulkner, joined the band when Jeff “Tain” Watts left in 2009. Pianist Joey Calderazzo replaced Kenny Kirkland after Kirkland’s death in 1998. Eric Revis replaced Robert Hurst on bass in 1997, when Marsalis relaunched his acoustic jazz quartet.
“So much of the history of jazz is like singular entities forging along playing singular things with pickup bands,” Marsalis says. “Nobody assumes that rock bands — successful groups of any kind — need to break up. Successful string quartets, successful orchestras: Nobody ever says, ‘Y’all been playing together for a long time, don’t you want to branch out and do some new stuff?’ ”
“Warne Marsh said it best,” Marsalis continues, “tenor player from back in the day. Somebody asked him that question, ‘Why do you keep playing with the same guys?’ And Warne says, ‘When you go to a party and you meet people and you don’t know them, so you ask them all these questions: Where are you from? What’s this? Who’s your favorite team? Blah, blah, blah.’ He says, ‘That’s all small talk. Playing pickup gigs is like constantly engaging in small talk, and I really want to have a meaningful conversation.’
“I went, ‘Damn. Game, set, match.’ That’s the end of the discussion. There’s a lot of guys who prefer small talk.”
Says Revis, who also plays in Tarbaby, his collaborative trio with Orrin Evans and Nasheet Waits, “I’m really fortunate to be part of some groups where everybody is always checking things out, and everybody’s on a serious path of development. It’s never phoning it in. You definitely have deeper conversations.”
Sometimes those conversations can be hard for newcomers to jazz to follow. Take for instance Revis’s “Dance of the Evil Toys,” the avant-garde opener to the quartet’s 2019 album, “The Secret Between the Shadow and the Soul.”
“That’s a very adventurous record,” says Marsalis. “Proud of it. But I understand that I’m not playing in jazz clubs — you know, 60-seat, 80-seat clubs for the hard core.
“When you’re playing big venues, where the majority of the people that are there are coming to see you for the first time — operative word being ‘see’ — when they’re coming to see you for the first time, you have to give them things: songs with a good melody and a great beat. So you find songs that are effective and you play them, and it’s all new to them. And this is like the whole part of the general disconnect.”
Marsalis and his quartet have learned better than to ignore the audience. Doing so only reinforces the misconception that jazz is inaccessible and esoteric.
“We don’t really buy the idea that we’re great and we’re geniuses and the audiences are all sheep, and it’s their responsibility to take classes and figure out what we’re doing. So we play a crazy song for us, and then we’ll play a song for them. Then another crazy song for us, and then the song for them. And if you meet them after the show, they say, ‘I really liked the three songs that you played for us.’”
Marsalis has learned to read a room, as when he had the band pivot to songs from the 1940s when they encountered a roomful of octogenarians at a show in Meridian, Miss.
“You can feel the energy in the room when they like something, when they don’t like something, or more importantly, when they don’t have any semblance of understanding of what you just played,” he says. “Different types of applause.”
“Very gradually, I got to this place where I started to understand that I was going to be cognizant of and respectful to the place that I was playing, and I changed the setlists. Like if you’re in Europe and you play ‘Petite Fleur’ as an encore, they applaud the melody as soon as you play. It’s a song they know; it reminds them of them.”
“That was really what that whole ‘Giant Steps’ thing was about,” he continues. “Musicians are so disconnected that they think they’re going to play ‘Giant Steps’ as an encore, and that people are going to go, ‘Yeah!’ And they’re not, because they don’t know any of it.
“I’m not in the record business; I tour for a living,” notes Marsalis. “So when we are making records I just assume that the people buying it are connoisseurs of the music, and it’s a different thing. But concert going is like I said — the operative verb is to ‘see,’ not ‘hear.’ So we dress nice. We legitimately love one another. It comes across on the stage. We laugh when we make mistakes. We just go for it. We have a good time.
“And I think because we have such a good time, the audience ultimately has a good time — except for the musicians who sit there with their dour look on their faces and their arms folded trying to dissect whatever it is they’re trying to dissect.
“We are just a bunch of jackasses who play. We are not drunk under the illusion of our own self-importance, our own radicalism. What we do is pretty radical, in terms of the fact that everybody tries to find a box that they’re good in and stay in their box — and we just go all over the place and play what we want.”
Presented by Celebrity Series of Boston. At Berklee Performance Center, Jan. 28 at 8 p.m. celebrityseries.org
Bill Beuttler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.