Friday night’s concert was both a return visit from very special friends in the neighborhood, as well as a first-time event. Duke Performances presented internationally renowned musicians and Durham residents, Branford Marsalis and Joey Calderazzo on the stage of Baldwin Auditorium on what is probably the shortest distance these two legends would ever travel from their home to a gig. While both have appeared at Duke several times before, those appearances were usually as part of a quartet. Tonight was a rare opportunity to hear the extraordinary artistry of pianist Calderazzo and Marsalis on both tenor and soprano saxophones without the usual addition of drums and bass.

This indeed had the feel of just a very large homecoming as both musicians recognized numerous people they knew in the audience and Marsalis even took some good-natured shots at his wife and daughter sitting in the first row. The nearly full house was immediately put at ease and any celebrity vs. audience pretense was quickly dispelled and settled into a symbiotic exchange of the love of great music.

I did have a problem with the placement of the Steinway concert grand piano. It was nearly to the edge of stage right, perhaps where it would have been if this were a big band playing. So for most of the concert almost all of the left half of the stage was unused. There was also a constant electrical buzzing that in the ballads became like a third droning instrument.

These guys have a long history together and their onstage camaraderie and telepathic musical connection was a joy to behold, in addition to the marvel of their playing. After some initial comments and interaction with the hometown crowd, they launched into a rhythmically jagged and up-tempo tune that somehow straddled both classic New Orleans style and funk. The name was not announced, but for anyone who may have been trying this for the first time, their minds should have been immediately blown. I imagine that many came because of the undeniable celebrity of the Marsalis name and perhaps had never heard of or heard Calderazzo. Having heard him several times before, I will testify and shout out that here is a jazz pianist that belongs with the names Tatum, Powell, Peterson, Corea and any others. He played the entire concert without a break (unlike with a quartet) and every moment his playing was filled with inventiveness, creative turns that were unique and personal, and unimaginable technique that bordered on trickery – especially since I was not sitting on the very narrow keyboard side!

It turned out that nearly all of the tunes played were from their 2011 album Songs of Mirth and Melancholy, a CD that I strongly recommend. Knowing how to effectively program a show and gauge the ebb and flow of an audience’s attention span, they alternated up tempo tunes that dazzled us with speed and dexterity with sensitively crafted ballads. Except for a blazingly fast rendition of George Gershwin’s “Liza,” the program was about evenly split into original compositions of Marsalis and Calderazzo. Between each number were wonderful stories about their friendship, recording sessions, composing techniques, family, and other assorted topics. It was done in a natural and genuine manner that added to the communal and unpretentious feeling of the concert.

Probably the most moving and spectacularly beautiful performance of the concert was “Hope,” a work written by Calderazzo in memory of Michael Brecker.  If you think these guys are solely machines running up and down scales at warp speed, you will be proven wrong as you listen to their tear-inducing playing in this, as well as other ballads. Shades of Chopin and Debussy in the piano colored the plaintive and heart-tugging phrasing of Marsalis’ horn. They held the audience in an almost hypnotic trance. Then, just as quickly as if to say “snap out of it,” it was again party time with a samba beat.

Marsalis revealed the breadth of his influences as he described the harmonic influence in Sergei Prokofiev’s opera The Gambler in writing “The Bard Lachrymose,” an enchanting and multi-faceted work. Towards the end of the evening, he told the story of being quasi-forced to compose a piece for his wife since all his musician friends were doing the same. He and Calderazzo played the result of that; “Eternal,” an ethereal, sultry composition that reminded me a bit of John Coltrane’s “After the Rain.” (Not afraid to say that since he freely admitted to often stealing ideas – please don’t sue me!)

While listening to these musicians, who are as good as anyone ever on their instruments, I couldn’t help comparing this performance with one of the many, many “classical” piano-plus-soloist concerts I’ve heard in this very hall. There was simply an unbounded joy, naturalness and ease here that I find missing in most other genres of music. They were having a blast and were certainly not afraid to show it. Not that being staid and serious is necessarily bad, just that this was a most delicious difference.