Jazzfest Review: Marsalis and Calderazzo walk a musical high wire without a net

Publication: Ottawa Citizen
Author: Doug Fischer
Date: June 26, 2012

REVIEW: Branford Marsalis & Joey Calderazzo Duo
NAC Studio
Reviewed Tuesday, June 26

In these penny-pinching times, a cynic might be tempted to say the recent popularity of the jazz duo is simply the result of programmers finding ways to save money. Two musicians come cheaper than a quintet or, heaven forbid, a big band.

Ah, but true or not, the observation misses an essential point: the duo is not only good value for the bean-counters, it’s probably the leanest way to get at the core of jazz.

If jazz at its best is the in-the-moment interplay between musicians, then what’s more basic, more intimate, than an unencumbered encounter between two players at the top of their game — two guys like saxophonist Branford Marsalis and pianist Joey Calderazzo?

The pair have played together since Calderazzo replaced the late Kenny Kirkland in Marsalis’s powerhouse quartet in 1998. But it’s only been for the past few years than they have also performed as the seamlessly intuitive duo that played two shows at the Ottawa jazz festival Tuesday night.

Their kind of familiarity can lead in two directions: playing what’s comfortable, or taking advantage of the freedom that comes from trusting each other when walking out on a musical high wire without a net.

Happily, Marsalis and Calderazzo have chosen the latter course. Playing mainly tunes from their 2011 album Songs of Mirth and Melancholy, their first concert Tuesday was exactly what that title suggests, a study in mood contrasts.

Beginning softly with the pianist’s La Valse Kendall, a mournful ballad with some haunting soprano sax work from Marsalis, the concert leaped straight into Calderazzo’s rollicking One Way, with its swinging, Monkish chords and tough, choppy tenor from Marsalis. And on the show went, meandering between mirth and melancholy, back and forth between fierce intensity and moments of classically-inspired tenderness, reaching a high point in the Spanish-tinged finale in which both musicians pushed aside the music’s centre of gravity, shifting tempos and dynamics and exhorting each other to new heights of passion.