While three-time Grammy Award-winner Branford Marsalis has performed and recorded alongside jazz icons, including Miles Davis, he also shared his gift with the Grateful Dead several times throughout the years.
Commonly dubbed a “musical chameleon,” there are many moments spanning Marsalis’ four-decade career that showcase his ability to immerse himself into any style of music, but nothing has been as well documented as what he added to the five Dead shows he performed.
In March 1990 at the Nassau Coliseum in Long Island, Marsalis famously made his debut as a guest performer with the Grateful Dead on Garcia’s beloved, whimsically melancholic “Bird Song.” The frisky back-and-forth between Marsalis’ sax and Garcia’s lead guitar sounds like two musicians who have been gleefully collaborating for years – it resonates with two old souls connecting on an ethereal level.
Marsalis weaves himself into the fabric of the Dead even deeper in a nearly 20-minute “Eyes of the World” during the same show. The jazz musician doesn’t dominate, though he could have, he simply accentuates the R&B and soul that’s already a part of the Dead’s cosmic musical puzzle.
“We may have helped introduce improvisation to rock ‘n’ roll, but the jazz cats had been jamming since before Chuck Berry even picked up his first electric guitar,” writes Dead drummer Bill Kreutzmann in Deal: My Three Decades of Drumming, Dreams and Drugs with the Grateful Dead. “Having Branford [tell] us that we showed him what’s possible within rock ‘n’ roll and that playing with us was one of the greatest thrills of his life was one of the greatest thrills of mine.”
Tapping into the psychedelic tie-dyed world of the Grateful Dead proved to be just as gratifying for Marsalis, who’s notoriously very selective when it comes to the musicians he will perform with.
“Phil [Lesh] was playing in one tempo, the drummers were playing in another, and Jerry [Garcia] was in another,” Marsalis states in Spring 1990 The Other One liner notes. “There were three different tempos going – actually Jerry wasn’t even in a tempo. I love playing like that.”
The spirit of those shows and that musical telepathy was forever instilled in Marsalis, and it continues to live on: Last August, about 30 years following that legendary Nassau show, Marsalis sat in on the entire second set with Dead & Company at the LOCKN’ Festival in Virginia.
AN EVENING WITH BRANFORD MARSALIS 8pm Saturday, Jan. 12. Sunset Center, San Carlos at Ninth, Carmel. $59-79. sunsetcenter.org. 620-2048.