When: Fri., Jan. 13, 8 p.m. and Sat., Jan. 14, 8 p.m. 2017
Saxophonist Branford Marsalis and pianist Joey Calderazzo have been musical friends and colleagues since the late eighties. Marsalis showed up on Calderazzo's first album as a bandleader, 1991's In the Door, while Calderazzo joined Marsalis's quartet in 1998, and they've played together in various combinations ever since. Marsalis should need no introduction at this point. He's loaned his prominent saxophone sound to everyone from combos with his brother Wynton to Sting, Steve Coleman, and Public Enemy. Calderazzo's profile may be lower, but that isn't a reflection of the quality of his mesmerizing playing. They also both happen to be Durham residents, where they serve as central figures for North Carolina Central's phenomenal jazz program.
This weekend's two-night stand at Duke Performances marks a rare dual appearance from the two, a chance to hear their musical conversations untrammeled by a larger ensemble. Their 2011 duo album, Songs of Mirth and Melancholy, offers an extended glimpse of that conversation. Recorded at the Hayti Heritage Center, the album sees the pair delighting in downtempo tunes that reside somewhere between jazz balladry and classical art songs. The few speedier numbers are engaging fun that feel otherworldly at times; the meat of the recording arrives when Calderazzo and Marsalis slow things down.
Marsalis often leads the way, his soprano sax blending the slightly acrid tone of the English horn with the squeal of a clarinet and, of course, the bright metal of the saxophone itself. And when things get either too "classical" or "jazz" sounding, he throws in some other element in unexpected ways. His take on Wayne Shorter's "Face on the Barroom Floor," for example, is both sweeter and more pointillistic than the Weather Report original. Calderazzo is an equal partner, weaving in and out of melodies in inventive ways and reconfiguring harmonies to cast an idea in a totally new light. When Marsalis goes way out, Calderazzo responds by pushing himself just as far in a complementary direction. On a song like "Hope," that means a quasi-Baroque piano solo gives way to keening wails of the saxophone.
Marsalis emphasizes that he doesn't think about a script or an obvious, linear teleology within this duo. It's unclear whether or not that's a larger mission statement for Marsalis, but in this context it allows him and Calderazzo to respond to each other and to wherever the sound goes. Maybe it will sound like what's on their records, or perhaps it could spiral off into uncharted territory. In either case, it's worth tuning in. —Dan Ruccia