Coping with crisisPerforming a streaming concert without a live audience due to COVID restrictions is hard to do, but the incomparable duo, Branford Marsalis and Joey Calderazzo, played eight tunes that were so engaging and so full of energy and passion that two days after I heard them I was still feeling their spirit and still in awe of their musical abilities. This Duke Performances program was very well planned out, alternating rollicking, swinging tunes with lush romantic ballads.

There were no introductory words and no program notes so I was at a loss because I desired to know who these wonderful tunes were written by. Except for “Liza” and “Do You Know What It’s Like to New Orleans” I didn’t recognize the others. They were possibly rarely-played gems of the musical theater or swing era or ballads written by great classical composers. I got in touch with Marsalis to find out the titles and composers of those tunes. He graciously replied right away and I was amazed to find out that Marsalis and Calderazzo wrote five of the six other tunes.

The concert opened with Calderazzo’s romping tune “One Way.” He began this with his very strong left hand playing bouncing bass lines while his right hand played chords in lively “Monkish” syncopation. Marsalis, playing tenor sax, joined Calderazzo on this blues-inspired tune and immediately the temperature rose with burning improvisations by both players. Marsalis has a uniquely identifiable sound; robust, warm, and deep with hints of Stan Getz and Sonny Rollins.

Next was Marsalis’ romantic ballad, “The Bard Lachrymose.” Marsalis played soprano sax, on which he has a pure, velvety tone, with Calderazzo sensitively accompanying.  Calderazzo took a very passionate solo for the first half of the last chorus and then Marsalis reentered and played the melody out. It didn’t seem that Marsalis improvised on this tune, he stuck to the written composition because the melody was so strong.

The next tune, taken at a very bright tempo, was “Liza,” by George and Ira Gershwin, with Marsalis back on tenor. This tune was a top choice improvisation vehicle back in the ’30’s and ’40’s because of its swift moving harmonic changes. It used to be a “cutting tune” at jam sessions for improvisers in the ’30’s and ’40’s, much the same way “I Got Rhythm” and “Cherokee” are now. Both players flawlessly executed the fast-moving chord changes with creativity and energy.

They followed this with another beautiful impressionistic tune “La Valse Kendall” by Calderazzo with Marsalis again playing his lovely soprano and Calderazzo sensitively accompanying and improvising. This tune had hints of Sidney Bechet’s “La Vie En Rose.”

Marsalis stayed on soprano for the next tune, “Do You Know What It’s Like to Miss New Orleans,” by Eddie DeLange and Louis Alter. The duo played it in rubato tempo and here we heard how well the two communicate with each other as Calderazzo perfectly timed his accompanying chords to Marsalis’ free interpretation of the melody.

Up next they played a swinging original interpretation of a rare gem, “There Ain’t No Sweet Man (Worth the Salt of My Tears),” by Fred Fisher which was originally recorded by Bing Crosby and Bix Beiderbecke with the Paul Whiteman Dance Band. During Calderazzo’s rocking solo the camera shifted to Marsalis who was dancing while he waited his turn to improvise.

The next tune was the most beautiful of the romantic ballads. It was “Eternal” by Marsalis. He played tenor and his tone was so singing and emotional. I had thought this could have been a piece by Debussy or Ravel with Calderazzo’s pedal tones and impressionistic chords and the pretty melody. I think Marsalis’ classical music skills and sensibility were at work here. (He is an excellent classical saxophonist as well,) It seemed as though we were nearing the end of a great classical concerto where we get to the flourishing cadenza. Marsalis showed here what a virtuoso saxophonist he is.

The last was my favorite up-tempo piece of the night, it was “Bree’s Dance” by Calderazzo. With its angular melody and fast-moving cycle of chords it was the most modern tune of the concert. They both played great solos on it, especially Marsalis who again stretched out as if he was playing the final vivace movement of a concerto. This was not the only tune they traded solos of four or eight bars, but it was the best.

There is a picture that comes to mind when describing this duo’s trading of solos. You’re watching a tennis match by two masters having a volley to win a match point. Each player continues to outdo the last shot of the other player and it keeps getting more exciting as each player keeps outdoing the last player’s shot. Well, it was like that when Marsalis and Calderazzo traded improvised solos. They kept reaching higher levels and outdoing each other but all along complementing each other. One player would make a statement, the other would carry the statement a little further and on it went rising to a great crescendo.

The duo of Branford Marsalis and Joey Calderazzo is not to be missed when the opportunity arises – fantastic playing by both musicians along with compositional skills unmatched. Their program is sure to be loved by both jazz and classical music fans and should appeal to an even wider audience.