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Publication: Dark Forces Swing Blind Punches
Author: Hank Shteamer
Date: January 9, 2012
“If you give a soloist an open solo for thirty seconds, he plays like he’s coming from the piece that you wrote. Then he says, ‘What the hell was that piece I was playing from?’ And the next thirty seconds is, ‘Oh, I guess I’ll play what I learned last night.’ And bang! Minute two is whoever he likes. Which is probably Coltrane.”—Bob Brookmeyer (RIP), quoted in Ben Ratliff’s The Jazz Ear
I think about this quote a lot when I’m hearing jazz live. Often it’s because I’m thinking how much Brookmeyer’s cautionary anecdote applies to the situation at hand. Last night, thankfully, this was not the case.
The show was Branford Marsalis’s “A Duo of Duos” at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Allen Room (TONY preview here), during which he dueted first with Joey Calderazzo—his partner on 2011’s Songs of Mirth and Melancholy, over which I’ve already gushed extensively—and second with Harry Connick Jr., the latter of whom didn’t sing. So these were pure saxophone/piano duos, with Marsalis switching between tenor and soprano.
Getting back to the Brookmeyer observation, what impressed me most about these performances was how fully the players were engaging with the material. They weren’t “soloing on tunes”; they were getting inside the songs, rooting around, exploring.
The Calderazzo portion came first, four pieces from Songs in quick succession: “Endymion,” “The Bard Lachrymose,” “Precious” and “Bri’s Dance.” Right as the pair began “Endymion,” you felt like you were being sucked into a vortex. The tempo was a little quicker than on the record, the elegantly dancing melody a little more rushed. Marsalis and Calderazzo seemed eager to crack open the shell of the tune and get to its sweet meat. But again, it wasn’t about leaving the song behind. As they played, I got the distinct feeling of overlap, of simultaneity. The men were talking over one another, each jumbling up the melody in his own way, with no consensus tempo. The net result was dense, hectic but also coherent. You felt that each was expounding eloquently, passionately on the same topic, reading out of the same book without agreeing beforehand what page to begin on. Each was so dialed into the material that they could just sing out together, at once.
“Soloist/accompanist” was erased pretty much from the get-go. Yes, there was traditional form at work: The pair would play the melody and dig into it a bit; then Marsalis would drop out, leaving Calderazzo to play alone, and eventually he’d reenter. Marsalis’s absences definitely built tension, but they didn’t summon that sinking feeling that sometimes comes when a bandleader or dominant musical voice takes a break and you’re left with something puny-sounding. Calderazzo was bursting with ideas, and as soon as Marsalis would exit, he would spread out his sound to fill up the space. There was something perpetual about the way he played, as if he couldn’t bear to break momentum, but he’d slide all across the spectrum of density and tempo. I kept imagining a punch-card score being run through a player piano as a curious and attentive operator tried out various settings.
And then Marsalis would reenter and suddenly there was room for the two to dance and swoop, to decide in the moment on a consensus pause, to obsess on a tangential phrase. This duo was just about pouring out, a wash of ideas, backed up by a shared familiarity with the material. I’ve rarely heard a less “[playing] what he learned last night” jazz concept. Marsalis and Calderazzo were interrogating these songs, needling them, pounding out their wrinkles, obsessing over them. The songs were not fodder; they were the focus, the matter at hand.
I remember “The Bard Lachrymose” flowing, almost unthinkably, at an even slower tempo than on the record. What Calderazzo and Marsalis are doing with these somber pieces (the “melancholy” portion of Songs) isn’t something I can personally think of any precedent for. To call them “ballads” almost seems silly. They are studies in meditation, in living with an ever-so-gradually unfolding feeling. Last night, “Bard” just oozed out so softly and tenderly, like shadow overtaking light as the day progresses, fueled by Marsalis’s perfectly honeyed soprano tone. “Bri’s Dance,” the most beboppish piece on Songs, concluded the set with an uptempo scamper. The pair didn’t fully articulate the melody until the end; they took their time jabbing, hinting, dissecting it. Another reminder that the best jazz isn’t just about blasting off indiscriminately; it’s about taking flight, yet knowing where your ceiling is—and, crucially, knowing where to land.
The Connick portion of the evening was equally strong. If I have less to say about it, it’s only because I knew less going in; having not heard Marsalis and Connick together before—okay, let’s be frank: having not heard Connick do much of anything except sing “It Had to Be You” in When Harry Met Sally—I had no idea what I was in for. Remarkably, this duo felt just as deep.
Obviously I had preconceptions. I’ll admit that I’d formed a hypothesis that the Calderazzo portion of the evening would feel weightier and that the Connick segment would perhaps be cutesy, more of a lark, more casual. And there was a casual-ness to the way it began, with Marsalis and Connick ribbing each other. (Marsalis made a reference to how Connick was currently “busy being a Broadway star,” and how he hadn’t “looked at a piano for months.”) But this mood did not carry over into the performance. The two began with a piece called “Virgoid,” which appears on their 2005 duo disc, Occasion: Connick on Piano 2 (I haven’t heard it yet, but you can bet I’ll be investigating), and they immediately established a tricky, vexing mood. Given the pair’s shared New Orleans roots, I expected a set filled with vintagey, good-time jazz (there was a “St. James Infirmary” encore, during which Connick and Calderazzo shared the piano, but that felt anomalous), yet there was little that felt carefree about the performance. “Virgoid” in particular registered as surprisingly tense, especially from Connick’s end, as though he had to keep a tight grip on the material—the arrangement featured these periodic theme statements that seemed to crop up out of nowhere—in order to keep it from spinning out of control.
I don’t have the rest of the Marsalis/Connick set list on hand, but I know they played one tune that was only identified as a New Orleans favorite (again, though, it felt more cloudy than buoyant) and “Chanson de Vieux Carré” (also from Occasion) and what I think was a standard. Throughout the set, Connick consistently impressed me. I just could not get ahold of what he was up to, though I remember this pervasive feeling that I described above, this sense of murkiness, perturbedness about his playing. Whereas Calderazzo had seemed to dance tempestuously across the keys, with no filter between his feelings and his movements, Connick seemed more leaden, sluggish, fraught. And I don’t mean to suggest that this was a matter of inferior technique; it seemed entirely intentional, as though he were exploring in this instrumental setting all the complex, sometimes awkward or unsightly emotions that he might have to mask when donning his “vintage-style jazz singer” guise.
I can say definitively that there is way more to Connick than I had known. I’m having a hard time remembering an occasion recently when I was so simultaneously intrigued and unsettled by what an improviser was playing. I just could not for the life of me pin down what he was up to. There was a good amount of classic stride in his playing, but very little bebop that I could hear and no real “avant-garde” signifiers. It just felt very other, like a branch that had stemmed off from the main trunk of jazz sometime in the ’30s or ’40s and thickened and evolved and hardened into its own idiom entirely. I’m extremely eager to study up on his work.
The aforementioned “St. James Infirmary” encore, with Marsalis and Calderazzo sharing the piano bench, was the evening’s lightest moment, but again, it wasn’t simply a letting-you-off-the-hook moment. There was a silliness to the presentation—at one point Connick was standing behind Calderazzo, more or less embracing him as he played the extreme high and low registers of the keyboard, while Calderazzo sat and handled the middle range—but the performance itself was extremely inquisitive. As with the rest of the evening, there was a sense of the wringing out of potential within a song. It wasn’t just “Let’s play this tune and toss it aside while we show off and play what we already know over the changes”; it was “Let’s steep in this, really marinate in it, explore this confined song space.” A lot of improvisers would do well to pay attention to what Marsalis is up to with these duo performances. He seems to want to remind jazz that it is not above its materials, that the songs do in fact matter, that they are the beacon of musicmaking, whether or not you’re working in an improvisational setting. Calderazzo and Connick get it too. I could be wrong, but it seems to me that these players are a school unto themselves.