School superheroes: Branford Marsalis and Joey Calderazzo make sure music does good in H-Town

Publication: Houston Culture Map
Author: Chris Becker
Date: March 22, 2012

Music and the arts in pre-college education are the first things to go due to state deficits and blowhard politicking. Several music and arts organizations in Houston with strong educational programming, including Musiqa, Writers in the Schools, and Young Audiences of Houston, work tirelessly to provide arts-integrated learning in some of this city’s most financially challenged schools.

Friday night at The Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, Houston organization MusicDoingGood presents pianist Joey Calderazzo and saxophonist Branford Marsalis in concert, as a duo, to benefit MusicDoingGood in Schools, which serves students 7 to 18 in after-school educational programs. Participating musicians and artists for all of the above mentioned organizations steel themselves to work with underprivileged, and often behaviorally challenged kids.

And I know from working with and interviewing some of these folks that the work is challenging, yet rewarding.

It is work that is being done well here in Houston. In another column, I quoted Discovery Green programming director Susanne Theis as saying, “Houston is way behind in getting credit for its accomplishments, but hopefully, it’s catching up.” Theis was referring to the programs and alum of Houston’s High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, where “jazz is taken as serious … as classical music,” but her quote definitely describes the work being done by the organizations I’ve named.

Executive and creative director David LaDuca describes the 7-month-old MusicDoingGood as being devoted to “philanthropy through music.” LaDuca and other staff identify a worthy charity, in the areas of health, music, education, or children, and craft a special concert fund raising event for the charity that describes its mission and tells its story through music. Previous concerts include last January’s REVEALED: Unplugged, with tenor Kenneth Gayle and pianist Gary Norian performing a set of original songs to benefit the Montrose Counseling Center and December 2011’s Bells in the Spiritual Tradition, Song and Celebration at the Rothko Chapel to benefit Casa de Esperanza de los Ninos, a safe house for children in crisis.

Friday’s concert with Marsalis and Calderazzo benefits MusicDoingGood in Schools, an after-school, multi-disciplinary class designed to support core curriculum. Current MusicDoingGood in Schools students at Alexander Hamilton, Wheatley and McGregor will be a part of a special production entitled “Now You Has Jazz,” to be presented on May 10 at Zilkha Hall at The Hobby Center. Non-profit charitable organizations interested in partnering with MusicDoingGood can download an application from the MusicDoingGood website.

Friday’s concert will feature compositions from Calderazzo and Marsalis’ latest album Songs of Mirth and Melancholy, available on the independent label Marsalis Music. Having played these songs together now for more than a year, Calderazzo promises “some more mirth with the set … we’ve split the difference.”

He describes the church in downtown Durham, N.C. where the album was recorded as “the perfect room,” with microphones carefully placed to capture its natural reverb, compelling Marsalis at times to move the bell of his horn away from the mics for occasional dramatic effect.

The album’s original compositions take inspiration from great melodic geniuses including Schubert, Mahler and Chopin, one cut being a straightforward rendition of the Braham’s lieder “Die Trauernde.” The melodies are startling in their beauty, realized by Marsalis on both tenor and soprano, his soprano tone in particular even fuller and richer than what I hear on classic 1990s recordings like The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born.

There’s a great interpretation of Wayne Shorter’s “Face on the Barroom Floor,” and the opening “One Way,” a Calderazzo original, that references great ragtime, boogie-woogie, and stride piano players, contemporized by way of Thelonious Monk. The album’s last cut, “Bri’s Dance,” manages to sound both strict and unpredictable, its relentlessly morphing melodic and rhythmic dialog somehow held in place by a cantus firmus of specific chords (Calderazzo knocked them out for me over the phone, but I’m still not able to keep up with this tune!)

It’s a great record. And with each track being a “first or second take,” one should expect a tight set full of surprises on Friday night.