Toronto Jazz Festival 2011: Branford Marsalis and Joey Calderazzo and the Bad Plus – blogUT

On Wednesday night, Branford Marsalis, on soprano and tenor sax, and Joey Calderazzo, on piano, took the stage at Koerner Hall for the world premiere of their duo collaboration, Songs of Mirth and Melancholy. They did a fantastic preview of this at last year’s Jazz Lives, which you can download (in part) and listen to here. At the Jazz Lives performance, Marsalis explained that when the two of them started this duo project, they sat down and talked about everything they hate about jazz duos. One thing that stood out to them as particularly distasteful was when the piano walks the bass line in the left hand: “If we wanted someone to walk the bass line, we would have hired a bassist”, said Marsalis.

Wednesday’s concert featured a mix of great standards and original compositions both old and new. The highlights included a wonderful rendition of Irving Berlin’s “Cheek to Cheek” and Marsalis’s “Eternal”, the title track of his record. Marsalis and Calderzzo are incredibly in tune with one another. Marsalis is, no doubt, the resident master. He seems to effortlessly and intuitively produce fantastic musical solos while Calderazzo works to keep up with his part, much of which is scripted in music he is reading; Marsalis didn’t have any music on stage.

This is not to say that Calderazzo didn’t hold his own; he played quite a lot and very well and many of his compositions were a joy to hear. Perhaps Calderazzo said it best: he doesn’t know how Branford Marsalis does it, but if he hears something once, he has it committed to memory. The one thing he doesn’t know, as Calderazzo pointed out, is the key that any song is in, though he can play them perfectly in any key. Marsalis explained that, as a child, he and his brother would ask their dad to play a song for them. Branford would ask his dad what key the piece was in, before they started, and his father Ellis would respond, ‘son, there are no keys. There are only notes.’’ Eventually Branford stopped asking and just learned to figure it out as they went along.  

Marsalis and Calderazzo performed at the Toronto Jazz festival in 2009 as part of Marsalis’s quartet, on the mainstage at Nathan Phillips Square (reviewed here), but what a departure this show is from that. To begin with, the change of venue to Koerner Hall meant a change from terrible acoustics to fantastic ones where the music can really really shine. Marsalis and Calderazzo make an excellent duo; I’ve been waiting in anticipation for their new album since Jazz Lives in 2010. When playing together, they build on each other’s strengths, harmonizing sometimes and just responding and developing at other times. This is not a duo that feels like they are missing a bass player; they have really made the most of the two instruments, collaborating on solos rather than merely taking turns.

Marsalis and Calderazzo played two encores in response to two very deserving standing ovations. The concert, which, in the end, ran about two hours with no intermission, still felt way too short; I would have been delighted to keep reveling in their talent and performances for at least another hour.

Earlier in the week, I saw The Bad Plus perform at the Enwave theatre and the experience couldn’t have been more different. I saw Ethan Iverson play with Charlie Haden back in 2009, and he was fantastic. So I walked into The Bad Plus concert with high expectations. And Iverson was good. Too good for the band he was playing in. The Bad Plus consists of Ethan Iverson on piano, Ried Anderson on bass, and David King on drums, and they all sound like they are playing in a different band with a different style. Iverson has the light jazz touch of Bill Evans and he’s very good. David King isn’t your average drummer – he tries to provide a rich percussive texture that’s more than just loud banging – but he sounds like he belongs in a rock band. Rather than being unobtrusive support, King’s drumming often takes over the pieces with rhythms that juxtapose so much with the other two parts that it’s often hard to find anything to focus on. This is the point, I suppose. Reid Anderson’s playing is halfway between rock bass and jazz trio acoustic bass.

The sooner you stop listening for a melody – and riffs off that melody – the easier it is to appreciate the three competing parts going on at all times. But I still found it too busy. The trouble isn’t that there are three different parts going on at once but that they aren’t connected at all. The three musicians sound, essentially, like they are playing three different styles in three different bands. Yet they are listening to one another – they start and stop together in perfect unison at multiple intervals throughout each piece – so this is a stylistic choice. It’s just one that happens not to work. Here’s hoping that the next time Iverson finds himself in town, he’ll be playing a solo concert, or a duo with somebody just as good or better (like, say, Charlie Haden, once again).

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