Audeze chats with pianist, composer and educator Brian Marsella

November 11, 2023

Pianist, composer, bandleader, and educator Brian Marsella has lived in the NYC area since 1998. He has been all over the NYC jazz and improvised music scene for 20 years both leading numerous bands (The Flail, Brian Marsella Trio, iMAGiNARiUM, The Modulators, Gatos do Sul) and as a collaborator and sideman. Marsella has released 19 albums as a leader and can be heard on over 40 more, 25+ on John Zorn’s label, TZADIK. A central figure in Zorn’s world, Marsella is a member of numerous ensembles including New Electric Masada, Cobra, Incerto (Julian Lage, Jorge Roeder, Ches Smith), Chaos Magick (John Medeski, Matt Hollenberg, Kenny Grohowski), and two piano trios (one with Kenny Wollesen and Trevor Dunn and the other with Jorge Roeder and Ches Smith.)

Brian Marsella in the studio with his MM-500 headphones

"Both the MM-500 and LCD-XC have already spoiled me! I’ve really enjoyed using them in different contexts."  - Brian Marsella
Here's our chat with Brian:
Can you pick out any highlights from your work that you're particularly proud of? 

I feel that my work has consistently grown over the course of my musical life. The last work usually strikes me as the ‘best’ work. Although in this case, ‘best’ is nothing more than being the closest to what I am becoming. The becoming for me is the exciting thing- getting closer to your core as an artist, a spirit, a creator. Each of my performances is a highlight to me- all for different reasons but also for the same reason- that I’m giving of myself totally and fully- to the music and to those sharing that experience. I could say the same is true of recordings and being in the studio, though I feel much less comfortable in the studio than on stage. I’m getting more and more comfortable in the studio and as such, my recordings are starting to feel better to my ear. I’m very happy with my album DRIVETIME by The Modulators. I think it has some of my best writing and was the first album I recorded in my home studio. I had made many albums before that that I love. I’ve made many since that I also love. I’m thrilled with my Brazilian-inspired album Gatos do Sul that I wrote for my dear friend Cyro Baptista. It has such amazing musicians on it that are so inspiring. In many ways, all the albums I’ve made with John Zorn are highlights- he brings out things in me that I didn’t know I could do! Calculus and Suite for Piano stand out. So does my solo piano recording of Zorn’s Bagatelles. I might however be most proud of my latest iMAGiNARiUM recording (it still hasn’t been released yet). It is an epic musical movie that spans over 150 minutes and is told in three chapters.

How would you define your main role on most of the projects you work on these days?

That depends on the project, but the same thing always holds true- to serve the music!

How did you get started in music? What kind of music did you listen to while growing up and how has that progressed?

I grew up in Bucks County, PA listening to my father play the vibes, flute, clarinet, saxes and organ. My dad is such a lover of music and it made an impression on me the joy he had playing music. Some of my first musical memories were hearing Sergio Mendes, Antonio Carlos Jobim, Stan Getz, Dave Brubeck, Stevie Wonder, many big bands from Ellington and Basie to Stan Kenton and Benny Goodman. For my 4th birthday, I received a bunch of cassettes- a LOT of ‘classical' music (Tchaikovsky and many of the romantic composers) and also some jazz. But what I remember most, besides falling in love with Tchaikovsky’s ballets and Brahms’ symphonies was a cassette of the rags of Scott Joplin. Man did I wear that out! And John Williams Star Wars soundtrack too, haha. My listening of music has constantly grown. The more I’ve opened my mind and heart, the more music has entered. I’ve gone through so many phases as any true lover of music and expander of consciousness has. Most recently, I listen to the music being created today. I know many of the creators and many I don’t know! I can’t believe how much incredible music is being made every moment. Almost daily I’m introduced to music and musicians I didn’t know. Sometimes it's important to step back and not listen too. I’ve had ‘musical’ fasts where I hardly listen to any music. That leaves space for digesting and creating.

Can you name any factors that influenced the course of your musical life? Heroes, role models, moments, interactions, etc?

Geez, this would take forever to answer! Hahahaha. And I love to talk… obviously. But this would need much more time and space than we have to answer even superficially. I’m 46 years old and started playing the piano when I was 2. I can assure you that a great many things happened that influenced the course of my musical life. I’ll say this: when you have a passion and a dream- pay CLOSE attention to the coincidences in your life! They stem from a deeper reality that is keeping you on course- even if it seems that you are going in the wrong direction! Most people believe the world is conspiring against them. I offer that the universe is conspiring to help you manifest your dreams! But the path is often very different than what we think it should be. So everyone that enters your life is sacred and a mentor/hero/role model. I actually don’t prefer those words. Yes, we can draw inspiration from the lives of others, but it is those that enter our life in every mundane or profound interaction that are the real teachers. I feel that all the people I have met in my life are part of the totality of my existence. I can, after the fact, say what I learned about either myself internally or the world externally but being open to the teaching opportunity of each moment is it for me. All that being said, I was incredibly lucky to have such supportive parents. They have encouraged, supported, cheered, and been trusting of my musical journey. I’ve made some really difficult choices and done some crazy things- things that I know must have worried them. But they always wanted me to be me and loved that I was doing what I loved. That kind of love is the best energy in the world to foster creativity. I don’t take it lightly and are forever grateful to them.

Can you briefly describe a moment of frustration from your past work, and what you may have done to overcome the obstacles? Would you approach it differently now?

Frustrations creep up all the time. I can think of different moments, but one central theme seems to carry through. That my frustrations tend to come from forcing things and ’trying’ too hard. Sometimes that was from a lack of proper preparation and then in the moment pushing too hard. Sometimes forcing things was in learning things in a way that creates tension in performance or recording. That was the case in the recording of Zorn’s Calculus. I prepared in a way where I was forcing the music to happen. Now in the end, the album is great, and it came out amazingly. But I had a price to pay physically. My approach now is to learn the music months in advance. Not touch it for a while and then come back to it the weeks leading up to the recording. When I come back to the music, it feels like it just comes back to me, and I don’t need to force it.

Is there any gear you find yourself turning to most when working on a project? What are some of your favorite tools/instruments recently?

I have so many different instruments that I use in different contexts. Everything from Fender Rhodes, Hammond B3, clavinet E7, Wurly, Farfisa, analog synths including my beloved Yamaha CS-60… I recently got a Therevox which I absolutely love. BUT I seem to always go back to my greatest love- the piano. And in my case, it's a 1925 New York Steinway B.

Do you have any words of wisdom for people who might aspire toward a similar path for their own careers?

I think I already touched on that. But if being an artist is your desire- be an artist. All the time. In everything you do. Art is the how or process of what we do- not the what. Learn to be your own teacher and follow your own voice. There is a different path for everybody and yours is a secret that is only bestowed to you. Cultivate and trust your inner voice. And live your deepest truth.

How long have you been working with headphones, and how do you typically use them in your workflow?

I’ve been using headphones since I was 3 probably! Not sure that’s good for a 3-year-olds ears though, haha! Wanted to hear music and teach myself the organ- all the time- sometimes my parents preferred not to hear it. That was the start. Now I use them for enjoying music while traveling, for recording, for mixing (both at home and in the studio) and for checking masters. One of the many reasons I’m so excited about the MM-500’s.

How have your Audeze headphones affected your work? Can you tell us what you've been working on with them recently?

Both the MM-500 and LCD-XC have already spoiled me! I’ve really enjoyed using them in different contexts. For general music enjoyment, I’ve really loved listening to my favorite music on the LCD-XCs. They have a little more high end and slightly wider soundstage in my opinion which adds life to recordings. For really critical listening, I’m using the MM-500s but haven’t used them yet for mixing- but that will happen on my next album for sure! I’ve been recording a number of albums for Zorn (HOMENAJE A REMEDIOS VARO, Full Fathom Five, Perchance to Dream, The Fourth Way, Suite for Piano, and more) and used the LCD-XCs for tracking and the MM-500s for mixing.

Brian Marsella's MM-500 headphones