Portland Jazz Festival 2012: Branford Marsalis and Joe Calderazzo, a MUSICAL Jazz conversation

Publication: Oregon Music News
Author: Tim Willcox
Date: February 24, 2012

Branford Marsalis. Period. That’s pretty much all you need to say. About as well know as any Jazz musician can possibly be, Mr. Marsalis is no stranger to the limelight that comes from performing around the world with his own various groups or with pop-stars like Sting, not to mention being beamed into millions of homes every night as former musical director of The Tonight Show. The eldest brother of New Orleans’ royal family of Jazz, Branford has remained at the top echelon of Jazz, both as a saxophonist and bandleader for a quarter century.

Joey Calderazzo, while perhaps not a household name, is undoubtedly one of the finest and most well-known pianists in all of Jazz. Mr. Calderazzo came to notoriety and critical acclaim in the late 1980s as pianist for the late, great Michael Brecker. Performing with Brecker for nearly twenty years, Calderazzo was added to Marsalis’ quartet line-up in 1998 after the untimely death of Kenny Kirkland. Since then, the pair have played around the globe thousands of times together in The Branford Marsalis Quartet (BMQ).

They will close out this year’s Portland Jazz Festival on Sunday, February 26, 3pm at the Newmark Theater, $28-$58.

After playing as a duo at various celebrity golf tournaments, the pair booked a gig at the 2009 Newport Jazz Festival. Some serious sparks must have ignited during that performance because the two have now teamed up for a duo recording on Marsalis Music, the record label owned and operated by Branford. The resulting album, Songs of Mirth and Melancholy is full of beauty, space, intimacy, and longing. It’s truly one of the best duo recordings by any pair of musicians in recent memory. Calderazzo contributes four numbers to the session, Marsalis composed three, and there are covers of Wayne Shorter’s “Face on the Barroom Floor” and Brahm’s “Die Trauernde”.

Aside from a couple of bookend straight-ahead tunes (“One Way” and “Bri’s Dance”) written by Calderazzo, the recording has the sound and feeling of a chamber music album. Mostly centered around either rubato or slow ballads, there’s a haunting quality which pervades the recording. Calderazzo explains, “This happened organically. We are both listening to and writing music and classical music has had a big impact on both of us. I have listened to a lot of Chopin and Brahms along with other classical composers. It really just creeps in there the longer you listen. Also, this album could not have been made with another horn player that I know. The restraint and beauty are coming from Branford first. I do my best to not get in his way”.

Mirth and Melancholy seems to be the type of album that an artist could only have made having reached certain point of maturity in their life. The music is performed with an honest intent that an artist can only attain through age and experience, love and loss. Branford is now over fifty years old and Joey is heading towards the same milepost. Calderazzo has been known throughout his career as the type of burning player who has the ability to always take the music to the next intensity level.

“Mirth” showcases a more introspective and subtle sensibility from the pianist. Joey muses, “This is a recording I would not have been able to make in my earlier years. I had not listened to enough music nor did I have that kind of touch on the piano. Both clearly contribute to the sound of the album.”

Calderazzo currently resides in North Carolina, not far from Branford. He says that while he sometimes misses living in New York, he enjoys coming home to NC To be with his family and play golf. I’ve noticed that over the past few years, Joey’s playing has seemed to become more referential of bop and “old-school” players. Monk, Bud Powell, Wynton Kelly and perhaps even some stride players like Willie “The Lion” Smith and Earl Hines come to mind. I asked Joey if this has always been a part of his vocabulary, or has he been adding elements of older styles to his playing in recent years? “I have been checking out a lot of older dudes trying to fill in the gaps. I would like to able to play just about anything. Although that will never be the case, I still try. I just hate sounding like crap on certain things.”

Pianists often try to make up for the lack of bass and drums in the duo setting by overplaying, or walking bass lines, something which can frankly be, well, annoying. This is something that is thankfully avoided on “Mirth”. “Walking bass lines are not part of what we are thinking. There is no bass player so I will not pretend to be one. Once you get over what it is you have to deal with, it is in fact limitless.”

You’d think that after playing with Branford Marsalis for over a decade in front of thousands might make you at ease with performing live, but Calderazzo admits the duo gigs have added a tinge of anxiety at times. “I don’t get nervous with the quartet, but in the duo I have been nervous during the 1st tune for some reason, knowing that it doesn’t really matter if I fuck up. But, I don’t get nervous for long. We have done a few gigs and we know the music better now, so its cool.”

So, what can we expect to hear on Sunday afternoon? Will the pair be playing music solely from the album or mixing it up a bit? Calderazzo notes, “We play other tunes as well as the album. Some album tunes we don’t ever play live.” Does this “other material” mean that there’s more recordings and touring to expect from the duo? “I am sure we will do another duo album. I think we are at the tip of the iceberg. There is a lot of options we have. I am sure we will play more and more. I have a trio and a live cd that will be coming out this year. When I am not playing with Branford, I am focusing on the trio. It’s been a very rewarding project.”

One thing is for sure, Portlanders rarely get a chance to see musicians of this caliber perform in our town. We’re often “flown over” by acts heading from Seattle to California and vice-versa. For a couple of weeks a year, The PDX Jazz Festival finds a way for us to feel like we’re living in New York City (minus the stench, trash, crowds and traffic).