Tour Profile: Branford Marsalis

Jan 1, 2004 12:00 PM, By Breean Lingle


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Branford Marsalis, renowned saxophonist and member of one of jazz's most beloved musical families, never seems to rest. In the last year-and-a-half alone, Marsalis founded and launched his own independent label (Marsalis Music), issued two solo CDs and a family effort entitled The Marsalis Family: A Jazz Celebration and signed guitarist Doug Wamble for his promising debut, Country Libations. Touring with world-class musicians such as Marsalis, Jeff “Tain” Watts (drums), Joey Calderazzo (piano) and Eric Revis (bass) would demand an equal caliber of perfectionism behind the board. Grammy Award — winning Rob “Wacko” Hunter, who, incidentally, shares his Best Jazz Instrumental Album (for Contemporary Jazz) with this quartet, has been touring with Marsalis since 1996. He amplifies club shows with “as little sound reinforcement as possible. The balance onstage is really good,” he says, “so all I'm doing is pushing it out to reach the people in the back.”

The quartet generally tours symphony halls and intimate clubs, such as tonight's venue, Yoshi's jazz club in Oakland, Calif. Hunter relies on the group's natural dynamics and uses effects sparingly. Marsalis' vision is to create a natural sound, so Hunter only adds “a taste of vocal plate on the piano” to open up and color specific verses. Still, he reports that he's busy behind the board “continuously tweaking. We don't use any amplification on the bass or any DIs — there are no DIs allowed. Other rules: No sax clips on mics, no Plexiglas, no compression and no gates. Branford doesn't use monitors and he's so in tune with the house that he plays the mic really well.” In fact, the group is weaning themselves off of monitors, so there are only two monitor mixes, one for Revis and the other for Watts.

Hunter and company travel without P.A. gear, so the Meyer system at Yoshi's (featuring CQ2s and CQ1s, with PSW-2 subs) is a welcome luxury. “We advance the gigs before; sometimes they have what I need and sometimes they don't. It's low budget, baby; it's jazz.” Yoshi's house engineer Dan Pettit assisted with this stage setup. Hunter's mics of choice are Sennheiser 421s and Beyer M88 on the acoustic bass, AKG 414s for the piano and a Shure Beta SM58 for a vocal mic, which is used primarily as an announce mic. Audience members were pleasantly surprised by the appearance of guest singer Frank McComb (vocalist for one of Marsalis' side projects, Buckshot LeFonque), who sang one of the ballads slated for the new record. Hunter used the Beta SM58 with just a bit of compression and reverb for McComb.

Hunter may not always have control over what kind of gear list he works with on the road, but when it comes to miking each of the instruments and positioning them on the stage, he follows a definite program. According to Hunter, Marsalis prefers that his saxophone be miked in the soprano position; during shows in larger venues, a small Shure SM98 or Beyer M88 is added to mike the bell. In a small club situation, Hunter seems satisfied using a mid-grade mic and miking Marsalis only when necessary. Because the saxophonist tends to wander away from the mic, Hunter notes that it ends up becoming Watts' mic drum by default.

Hunter mikes the drums in a fairly standard configuration, though he tends not to use tom mics because Watts' cymbals lie so low. The piano, on the other hand, takes a little more fine-tuning. Hunter likes to mike the piano “up close — but not too close — near the hammers of the keyboards, because these guys are so raucous; that's why I have the lid down a half-stick. If I have mics too far at the low end of the soundboard, they just pick up a lot of drum and bass boom. I have to get some detail, so I have three mics on the piano. I have one coming around the back right at the low-end hammers for the low end, and I have a low, mid and high.”

Also part of Hunter's job is to record live shows as a way for the band to track and archive new material. “We just started this process [of recording] when we got the rig at the start of 2003,” Hunter says. “We record 24 tracks that comprise instrumentation, vocal and lots of audience room mics. Mics go to my own splitter box, then to Millennia Media mic pre's and from there straight into three DA98HRs [in HR mode at 48k]. Signal out from the DA98HRs goes to a small line mixer so I can check from valid signals. I place [the rig] behind the piano onstage, right next to my splitter box, set the levels at soundcheck and we're good to go. At the end of the night, I check my tapes and unplug the rig.”

Breean Lingle is Mix's editorial assistant.

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