Branford is the fun Marsalis, the Marsalis who played with Sting and the Grateful Dead, the funny Marsalis who fooled around with a movie career (Throw Momma From the Train) and who was the bandleader and sidekick when Jay Leno first took over the Tonight Show way back.
But that can be deceptive. Branford, in many ways, has been just as “serious” about music as his polemical brother Wynton. Particularly when it comes to playing passionately straight-ahead jazz, Branford has been more hard-nosed. His quartet has been a long-standing institution that rarely indulges in themed records or gimmicks. Mostly, Branford has insisted on charging post-bop and aching classic ballads, drawing on the tradition of Rollins, Coltrane and Byas. Branford’s quartet has been an ain’t-no-foolin’-around outfit.
Since the pianist Kenny Kirkland passed away in 1998, the piano chair in Branford’s quartet has been decisively owned by Joey Calderazzo. Before joining the quartet, Calderazzo played in Branford’s Buckshot Le Fonque band and played extensively with Michael Brecker. His tenure with Branford, however, has seen him evolve from a capable modern jazz pianist into a fascinating stylist. Calderazzo has developed a sensuous touch on ballads, a hip amalgam of stride and Monk, and a dashing solo style that doesn’t crowd the ear with notes.
Thus it is that a duet album between these serious partners of 12 years arrives with some expectation and intensity. In several bold ways, it delivers, but should it be surprising that it is so controlled and careful?
The name of the recording is Songs of Mirth and Melancholy, but the mirth here is limited. Six of the nine tracks are carefully measured ballads of various kinds—each extremely precious—providing relatively little contrast over the course of the whole recital.
And I use the word “recital” quite purposefully. About half of Songs emphasizes the tonal beauty and careful articulation of both Marsalis and Calderazzo. Again, if Wynton was the brother with the famous grounding in classical music, then Branford isn’t far behind. The duet on “Die Trauernde” is sonically impeccable, with Calderazzo voicing his instrument to get ringing overtones that sparkle in combination with Marsalis’s plaintive soprano saxophone. It’s followed immediately by Calderazzo’s “Hope”, on which the soprano plays a gently seductive melody over a carefully orchestrated—but quite simple—piano part. Calderazzo’s solo seems like a two-part invention by Bach in some places—not the typical “jazz ballad” performance.
Marsalis’s “The Bard Lachrymose” is equally “classical” in the care put into articulating its initial melody statement. The harmonies of the composition and the tone on soprano that Marsalis chooses suggest a sonata from the 19th century, and even Calderazzo’s solo statement sounds composed rather than improvised. The pianist’s “La Valse Kendall” strikes a similar tone, but Marsalis’s soprano solo—while linked by certain phrases that are far from being blues—uses the swing feeling of jazz as he works out over the waltz feeling.
The songs here that work over a groove come as welcome relief. The opener, “One Way”, combines a riff-based melody with a herky-jerky piano grind that has the off-kilter syncopation of Monk but a bit of the grease of the funk-jazz of the 1960s. Marsalis plays tenor here, sounding not gruff but at least like he knows how to get his knees scraped a little. It’s his tenor on “Endymion” that knows how to get crazy, however. This tune, composed by Marsalis, is indebted to Keith Jarrett, set as a rambling melody over a pulsating, dancing tempo. Both players engage in engrossing solos, with Marsalis at the very height of invention, working in surging runs that move in contrast to the piano. This is the kind of jazz that seems both perfectly free and perfectly tonal at once.
“Bri’s Dance” is very nearly as good, with Marsalis’s soprano in aggressive mode, jabbing and striking like darts. Marsalis is one of the few contemporary players to make an overt attempt to assimilate Wayne Shorter’s innovations, and this is a fine example. Even clearer, of course, is the duo’s take on “Face on the Barroom Floor”, a Shorter tune from the Weather Report album Sportin’ Life (1984). Without mimicking Shorter, Marsalis combines his elder’s stark jabs and vocal slurs with the pretty vibrato and keening sweetness of his normal playing.
The last minute of “Barroom Floor” gets very quiet, as both Marsalis and Calderazzo hush themselves and play a strange and hypnotic variation on one of the song’s melodic fragments. It’s one of the most beautiful parts of a very beautiful recording. It feels free and somewhat abstract, and it suits these two players greatly. Both Marsalis and Calderazzo are obviously at home playing with subtlety and precision, and if there’s one complaint I have about Songs of Mirth and Melancholy it’s that too much of the playing feels highly directed. Not that the playing is not brilliant, compelling, and from the heart, but this small moment at the end of a Wayne Shorter song seems like the most honest moment on the record—a minute where they have momentarily stopped showing off so much.
I suspect that many listeners will react to these duets similarly: they are splendid but just a little too conscious of themselves. They are not always sufficiently lost in feeling. Still, they supply a generous dose of great musicianship throughout and, occasionally, they dare to touch greatness.