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Branford Marsalis/Joey Calderazzo - "The goal is musical perfection"

Pianist Joe Calderazzo is part of the Branford Marsalis quartet since 1998—along their way he and Branford soon discovered a kind of brotherhood in their musical minds, speaking the same language. For the album "Songs of Mirth and Melancholy" both musicians inspired each other and together followed Marsalis' conceptional and compositional path.

Joey Calderazzo/Branford Marsalis

It was a path leading them into the direction of their musical ancestors-contemporary jazz and classical music alike. The "mirth and melancholy", the ups and downs, the joy and depression of life in general — everything mirrors and finds its expression in this brilliant album…

Carina Prange assisted Branford Marsalis and Joe Calderazzo in interviewing each other for Jazzdimensions

Carina: Joey, let's start with you. Could you please tell a little bit about how this duo project came into being and how it developed from then on?

Joey: Well, actually the first time we played duo was on my record. I did a record for Blue Note around 1995, something like that. Also we had played little duo shows throughout the years. And then when we played at Newport two years ago—after that it was like we both felt, you know, it might be time to go on and record it. And since the recording it's like—now, let's go out and play!

It's something different, it's really… I think, we are just at the very tip of it. If we went out and did this for a while, it's something that we can really develop. And we are just in the beginning stages. We have a musical relationship by playing in Branford's band. But this is something a little different and I think, there is a lot of room for development.

Joey Calderazzo

Carina: Branford, would you like to add something?

Branford: Yeah! (both Branford and Joey laughing) I agree!

Carina: Branford, in what respect are the two of you "soul brothers", to call it like that?

Branford: Ahem, yeah… — we love each other and we have grown together over the years, personally and professionally. And it's a cool thing, it's a special bond.

Carina: This is not the first duo situation you worked in. There's the duo you formed together with your father, Ellis Marsalis. There was another one together with Harry Connick, Jr., before you started the current duo with Joey. If you compare all these settings, what is special about each of them?

Branford: Well, all these musicians play very differently as partners. And the way that they play brings out different aspects of my playing. My dad plays standards. It's his milieu. He plays songs that I wouldn't play. So that was a great record for me, because I was definitely playing songs that on my own I would never have played.

Harry, he is probably one of the most talented musicians that I have ever been around, including myself and I. He is just really a talent, he has so many abilities in so many different ways. His writing style is very unique. And if you listen to it, a lot of the songs on that record are "very Harry". Partnering with him you have to figure out a way to play those songs, a way that makes them work. And we did. We worked really well together. We have alike minds musically.

With Joey it is just a different thing, it's almost like it's invisible. It's almost like Harry and I. Whereas with my dad… well I know how my Dad plays. And he is rather inflexible, so I am gonna play the way he plays. With Harry, we both anticipate what the other guy is gonna do. However, when I am playing with Joey, it's just—it's like we are breathing at the same time. I don't have to anticipate anything. I feel it's all gonna just happen. And it does just happen!

And because of what we do professionally, it allows the music to go in directions that would be extremely difficult for my dad or for Harry to do. Not outside of the realm of their possibilities, in terms of talent and ability! But just the music that Joey and I play on a regular basis, and the music, that we are listening to, allows us to play the songs the way that we play them. It would be more difficult to play these songs in the other settings.

Branford Marsalis

Carina: In the info text we read: "…the goal for Marsalis is musicality rather than technicality." To put musicality over technique, what does that result in? Is the music more alive, however less perfect? Or what?

Branford: It's almost like a "false choice". But technical perfection does not represent musical perfection. Sometimes, for example when you listen to Glen Gould playing the Brahms ballads, both are combined. That's technical perfection and it's musical perfection. Or Coltrane in the way he played during the Atlantic years. That's technical perfection and at the same time it's musical perfection. Even all the bands that he played with couldn't really keep up with him...

However the goal is musical perfection. If the technical perfection comes along with that—great. But I would never sacrifice a song to show some technique that I have worked on. I would never set up a song to show how technically advanced I am.

Because sometimes the most important and brilliant thing you can do in a song is to play a whole note or half note—as opposed to playing a flurry of notes and runs and something that's worked out. So it's being sensitive to the needs and the requirements of the song as opposed to putting your own personal ambition ahead of everything.

(Turning towards Calderazzo) What about you?

Joey: I agree… I mean, there were times when I have listened to things in my own playing, where technically it's near perfect. But in hindsight I wish I had not played that! (laughs)

You know, sometimes to get to the essence of music, it's a half note or a whole note. And sometimes it's a flurry of notes—you just hope that technically you can pull it of. But the first thing I am trying to do is to capture an emotion.

Marsalis/Calderazzo - "Songs Of Mirth And Melancholy"

Branford: This is the kind of record that every jazz musician won't like, what we are doing. Because their mind set is about, you know…

Joey: (throws in) It's gonna be a tough record for people in general!

Branford: No, for people who like music it won't be.

Joey: I told my manager, I said, when you listen to this record, you have to like…

Branford: …listen.

Joey: Yeah, listen. You'd have to be quiet, put headphones on, do whatever and just sit there. And just close your eyes and listen. Because there is a lot of music and you need to pay attention.

Branford: In jazz we have got away from that...— the songs are about "shredding" as they say: Playing real fast, making things overly complicated. And just the art of playing simple things beautifully… There are a lot of people who just can't even hear music like that anymore!

Because when they listen to music they don't hear music. They hear the subsets of music. I had a conversation once with a guy who was telling me: "You know, when you were playing on that chord..." — and he named the chord. I interrupted: I wasn't playing on that! — He says, "No, you were!" — I said, "No, I actually wasn't! I don't even know what it is. It was just, Revis played one thing, Joey played another and I heard what it was. And I played based on that!"

I am not on stage going, oh, that's a G7 flat 5—so let's do this! I mean, I just react to what is going on. And there are a lot of musicians who go completely the opposite way with that. They want to know what all the chords are. And they play along the chord changes. I don't!

It's not something I think about very much. Sometimes maybe I should, but I don't. I like the outcome of that most times. Because it just has a sense of adventure and a sense of wonder. And it doesn't sound like a speech, it sounds like a conversation. Whereas the prepared stuff can sound "speechy".

Joey: Because I play piano, I know all the chords. It's what I do. You know, I deal with chords and scales and extensions and all of that. But I have noticed that it can get in the way. And it does get in the way.

I am playing best when I am not thinking of any of that stuff. You know, when you think about some of my favorite improvisers like Wayne Shorter and his choice of notes: he is clearly not thinking of scales…

Branford: It's just sound! He is just reacting to the sound.

Branford Marsalis

Carina: To throw in a question here—to perform together with other musicians, what would be the more important talent, to be a great player or to be a great listener?

Branford: I think, to be a great musician, it requires both. Because I have played with musicians…—let me correct that!—I played with players, who don't listen. And it is just no fun at all.

I remember doing a duo setting with one piano player...—and we just didn't… it was nothing! He was reharmonizing every song. I didn't know what he was doing. And it never occurred to him, that a chord that is harmonically correct in theory is not correct if I am not playing those notes!

So his playing was just going all over the place and none of the songs had anything. And finally I said: Man, would you, please, would you play the chords that were written for the song? And his response to me was: What? Can't I have fun, too?

And in my mind I was going: If you can't find any joy in just plain simple songs, there is no hope for you, there is no hope. He is a great guy, but I just can't do that! And it went from "let's have a music to co-experience" to, you know, "fuck it, it's only 45 minutes". That's what I was telling myself, it will be over soon! Just play and ignore it. And that's just not a way to play music for me.

Joey: I think, that there is a fine balance to achieve both. You know, like somebody like Herbie, listening to the duo of him and Wayne playing "Stella by Starlight" and he just…He changed — I mean reharmonized — 40 percent! But it was all underneath Wayne. So there is an art, too.

Branford: No! But Herbie is listening.

Joey: That's right.

Branford: Herbie knows harmony —and he plays harmony based on what it is that you are playing.

Joey: Yeah, and then sometimes he also pushed Wayne into a place. And Wayne also sat back and played simple.

Branford: …and that's fine, too. But if you got a guy that's only reharmonizing, it's just horrible.

Joey: I agree. And I have been there! When you approach music harmonically, this is the curse of being a piano player. Herbie Hancock to me is the greatest at it, because when you play music and it's harmony rather than melody, you are screwed. And clearly this piano player was harmony and…

Branford: (throws in) …no melody at all.

Joey: Yeah, without melody. And what is harmony? I mean, what's stronger, harmony or melody?

Branford: (with emphasis) Melody!

Joey: Melody. You know, harmony is just the background to a melody.

Branford: And the modern jazz thing is to put the harmony in the front and it shows…

Joey: (laughs)…that it ends up being a dead end.

Joey Calderazzo

Branford: You know, Herbie did one of the most amazing things I have ever heard in my life…

Joey: (eager) The thing with the 4th?

Branford: I couldn't believe it! My brother ended a ballad...—it is on the VSOP-Record he did with the Herbie Hancock Quartet—and he ends on a very curious note. It's a note that is one half step above the tonic of the chord. … and Herbie doesn't play anything at first.

I was like, oh my, what's he gonna do? Will he play the note that my brother plays?—No, he plays the root… and then he plays single notes in 4th until he reaches the note that my brother is on. And then he played it. And I was like..., oh my God!

Almost every other piano player would just have banged up the chords and it would have just have been that big "jazz-mish-mash", that you often hear—where guys aren't communicating.

Joey: So, if it was in E, Herbie hit E-flat in the bass?

Branford: No, if it was in E, Wynton would have played an F!

Joey: Look, say you call it E-flat, it's the tonic when Wynton hit an E.

Branford: So then he went E-flat, A-flat — (sings the line) — in fourth. And then he got there to the note, and then he sat on the note—and I said, oh my goodness, that's just the most amazing...

Joey: (coquettish) It's pretty.

Branford: And remember, when you have musical imagination and talent, you're not sitting there saying, I got three options on this chord and I'll just pick one. Herbie could hear what he was doing on the entire harmony.

Joey: That's what makes Herbie so special!

Branford: It's just that he can hear. At the same time he is hearing, he can actually see the entire picture of all the possibilities and he picks the right one every time. Well, not every time, but almost every time. He was the most amazing man I ever heard when I was a kid. I did not know anything about jazz! Me and Wynton back then, we both were young kids.

Joey: Clearly proven by hitting that note!

Branford: He would never hit that note now. Never! — When Herbie did that I was just sitting there and thinking, this is unbelievable… if I could ever learn how to do something like that! It was just genius… and it's so simple. Nobody would think of it as genius! They think genius has to be complicated. But it was so simple. It was sooo simple!

Joey: (sneezes)

Branford: Bless you! Bless you! —(in German) — Gesundheit!

Carina: Let me just throw in another question—about the title of your album, "Songs of Mirth and Melancholy". Taken together these may be the most important moods to illustrate by music. Is there a story behind that choice of title?

Branford: Well, first you got to find something that works musically. And then you got to find something that works as a title. I just listened to the songs and I tried to find a title. Keith Jarrett has a poem called "Something of Mirth and Something" — I just kind of remembered that.

So Keith had this thing and I just kind of put it together from there. I started by saying, o.k., what does the record sound like mostly? Hmm… there's happy songs, there's sad songs…— well, that's not a great title, "Happy songs, sad songs!"— So then, happy? Mirthful. Mirth… "Songs of Mirth".

I sent out this e-mail to all these people, I need to find a word, that is a synonym of melancholy. I don't want to use the word "melancholy"—what other words can you find, that represent melancholy?

Then my wife writes back: Why not melancholy? What about it? And I said: No, I don't want to use melancholy! But the more I thought about it, the more I was caught in: "Songs about Mirth and Melancholy"… —Yeah, she was right, what about melancholy? — And that was it!

Carina Prange

CD: Marsalis/Calderazzo - "Songs Of Mirth And Melancholy"
(Marsalis Music/Universal)

Branford Marsalis im Internet: www.branfordmarsalis.com

Joey Calderazzo im Internet: www.myspace.com/joeycalderazzo

Universal Music im Internet: www.jazzecho.de

Fotos: Pressefotos (Dank an Marsalis Music)

© jazzdimensions 2012
erschienen: 9.6.2012
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