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Pianist Joey Calderazzo an influential sideman with Branford Marsalis
Author: R.J. LeDuke
Date: February 1, 2012
Playing piano with Branford Marsalis, one of jazz music’s select saxophonists, has its requisite challenges, even beyond the on-the-fly improvisational nature of jazz that forces musicians to stay on their toes. Marsalis is one of those who brings the heat every night.
Pianist Joey Calderazzo has been an integral part of the Branford Marsalis Quartet for about 11 years, adding his distinct brand of creativity and energy to the exciting group sound. But melding with a powerful and dynamic tenor sax force isn’t new to the pianist. Prior to that gig, he spent a similar length of time with Michael Brecker, the most influential saxophonist since John Coltrane.
Calderazzo, who calls Marsalis his closest friend, is part of a stellar musical team that will be on display Friday night at Proctors in Schenectady. It will be a special night for fans, who will get to hear the two play in a duet setting as a warm-up to a performance by the full quartet, with Eric Revis on bass and Justin Faulkner on drums.
The duo performance is one of a series that Calderazzo and Marsalis are doing early this year in the wake of a duet recording that came out last year on the saxophonist’s Marsalis Music label, “Tales of Mirth and Melancholy.” A collection of mostly ballad-style, reflective music — “more melancholy than mirth, one would say,” quipped Calderazzo — it’s striking music that draws more on emotion and subtlety.
The full quartet was also in the studio in 2011 and produced a recording that will come out before long. “We went in and knocked it out in two days. And it sounds great. It’s really a good record,” beamed the pianist.
“After 11 years of playing with Branford, I’m still nervous to play with him,” he said. “And I had the same thing with Mike (Brecker). Mike kept you on the top of your game. Being his piano player, night after night, Mike brought it. He would go to the sound checks and would sit at the venue and practice for hours. He played every performance like it was going to be his last.
“Branford’s attitude is not that. It’s a funny thing. My take on it is, no matter where it is, it’s just another performance (for Marsalis). The two of them are polar opposites, but it works for each one of them. It very interesting. I’ve learned from both of them.”
One of the reasons Calderazzo likes the upcoming new quartet CD is the vitality that new young drummer Faulkner brings to the band. “I’ve said one thing to Justin. Don’t get comfortable, don’t find a part, don’t play the same every night. I want you to change every day. Don’t play anything the same,” said Calderazzo.
“To me, Justin has really been one of the greatest things to see come around in a long time. This kid came into this band with a certain kind of energy. He’s 20 years old and he shows up and the stuff that he can’t do, we’ll be like, ‘You need to check this out.’ And he’ll check it out and he’ll be playing it the next day. It’s really amazing.”
Calderazzo, from New Rochelle, had the same energy growing up, playing with older musicians in a rock band. When one band member went to Berklee School of Music, he would visit there and play with some excellent young musicians.
“One of those guys told me to check out the Miles Davis groups and the John Coltrane groups. I went out and bought just about every Miles Davis record. Miles was a good one, because he always had a great group and he always had great musicians. So if you check out all of Miles’ records, you get to check out (pianists) Wynton Kelly, Red Garland, Bill Evans, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, Keith Jarrett,” he said. All those pianists became influences, and eventually he attended Berklee. From there, his improvisational skills blossomed and he became a major rising talent.
He followed the renowned pianist Kenny Kirkland into Brecker’s band. Kirkland joined Marsalis’ band. Ironically, when Kirkland died, Calderazzo moved into that vacancy. He’s also had his own albums on the Blue Note and Columbia labels.
Calderazzo calls Brecker, who died in 2007 at age 57, an unforgettable father figure and mentor.
“Branford and I are literally the odd couple,” said Calderazzo. “We are worlds apart in just about everything. He is completely well read. Completely into politics. I’m not into politics at all. But Branford and I can talk for hours about life, about feelings, about relationships, about music. … The other thing is, I am a pain in the ass. I can be really difficult. Branford knows that about me. We just naturally like one another.”
Calderazzo also tours with his own trio and is hoping to do more with that, including possibly releasing a live recording later this year.
But his sideman work has gone just fine.
“It’s been a neat thing for me as a sideman. I kind of changed both quartets that I was in. Brecker played a lot of my music. Branford is playing my tunes. The communication relationship of what goes on has been developed and Branford and I have a musical identity together … I have no regrets and wouldn’t change it, because of the music I’ve made with both Branford and Mike, and those personal relationships have been wonderful for me.”