Songs of Mirth and Melancholy Liner Notes

Author: Rafi Zabor

“The most difficult thing in music is still to write a melody of several bars which can be self-sufficient. That is the secret of music. While the technique should be as perfected as possible, that is a lesser essential … Anybody can acquire a brilliant technique … Melody alone permits a work to survive.”
                                                                                     —Darius Milhaud

When Branford Marsalis’s longtime piano associate Kenny Kirkland died early and untimely in 1998 and the quartet needed not a replacement but a means of surviving the loss and moving ahead, Joey Calderazzo was “the completely obvious choice,” Marsalis told me recently. “There was no one else who could do it.” For the dozen years since, their paired evolution has been a brightness at the core of an adventurous band that itself has added light and heat to the music of its time.

So why an album of duets just now? Did the amazing new teenage drummer need time to ripen? “Absolutely not. He’s ready now.” Had some major conceptual crossroad been attained? Could be, but that wasn’t the prompt.  “George Wein made some free time available for Marsalis Music at Newport one summer. Joey and I did a duet set and when it was over I looked at Joey and said We gotta record.”

The fact that these duets are radically different from what they would have been even a few years ago started me thinking about the different ways in which these two musicians have evolved: Marsalis refining and developing a style whose essential elements were already in place when Calderazzo joined the band, and the pianist achievinga gradual transition from the dominant Herbie Hancock school of jazz piano—virtuosity, intelligence, and a substitute chord voicing for every occasion—to a differently conceived, less notey, more melodic style that probably has never been better revealed than on this album.

I thought I’d ask both men about it.

“I can almost pinpoint when it started happening,” Calderazzo told me. “I recall doing a trio gig in Boston before I joined up with Branford, and it was starting then. I’d begun to abandon all the things I’d studied. You go from Ahmad Jamal at the Pershing, Blakey’s Free for All, Milestones, McCoy’s first trio record Inception, all of Herbie’s music, Chick Corea’s Now He Sings, Now He Sobs … You take all that, you learn it, then you’ve got to try and forget it and just make music. Joining Branford moved it along, but it was coming anyhow. There were things I really needed to check out.”

Marsalis, in a separate interview, concurred: “I can’t take credit for it. Joey did the work, along with all the things that come with age and living. His playing and his writing underwent a dramatic change. Just as I was exposed to new things when I came to New York, Joey started checking out Fats Waller, Willie the Lion, Chopin, Brahms, and his playing started to lean toward the melodic side instead of relying so heavily on his virtuosity. But his playing always had that special thing, for me … There are so few people who can actually create melody—which is why there’s an over-reliance on pattern, because it’s attainable and melody is elusive: either you’ve got it or you don’t. Joey’s always had it, and the technical side as well.”

Calderazzo takes the bridge: “I get sick of what I’m playing on a regular basis. It’s important to have certain things under your fingers so they’re there. But musically, personally, people grow up sooner or later: life experience, trial and error, getting over problems of one kind or another. All music is a reflection of one’s life.”

Branford again: “What we all too often do as musicians, we tend to listen to the music that we like and dismiss the things we don’t like immediately, and we disregard their value. Which, ironically, reduces us to glorified pop music listeners. When you have a guy playing jazz piano and he has every recording by Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, and Keith Jarrett and nothing by Fats Waller and none of Thelonious Monk or Jelly Roll Morton, it just seems strange. I can’t think of any other artistic discipline, or for that matter law or architecture or anything else you’d study in a university, in which you’d blithely dismiss the first hundred years of it and rush to another spot. But in jazz schools they do it all the time … It’s the difference between gravitating to that which is comfortable, and the courage to deal with shit you ain’t good at.”

Calderazzo’s “One Way” is the only conventional jazz tune on the album, with a chunky rhythmic feel, a honking A-section and some Monkish girderwork integral to the infrastructure of its bridge. The composer’s solo barrelhouses its way past echoes of boogie-woogie and Harlem stride, with Thelonious looking in, while Marsalis begins his tenor outing somewhere between swing-style and R&B before deciding to let Sonny Rollins lend a hand: the resulting intricacies and assymetries are a treat.

Thus we are decanted into the real depths of Songs of Mirth and Melancholy. Although two of the best things on the date, “Endymion” and “Bri’s Dance”, are uptempo tunes featuring a special brilliance of interaction, it’s clear that the album’s heart lies in its ballads, and that they are steeped in the 19th century romantics—one immediately hears echoes of Schumann, Schubert, Chopin, and as if to eliminate all doubt one of the pieces is an early song by Johannes Brahms—but the music draws on that wealth of expression and finesse without ever becoming what used to be called Third Stream Music or, with the possible exception of the Brahms, which is played as written, leaving the jazz idiom. The absorption of that bygone expressive atmosphere has been achieved too organically for that; neither does the music trouble its head or heart with matters of borderline and genre.

“You listen to older music, you study it seriously and in detail,” said Marsalis, “and your brain becomes a kind of relational database, so that you can access the things you want to when you need them. If you don’t have it in you, you can’t access it. I got the first chord of “The Bard of Lachrymose” from Prokofiev’s opera The Gambler. After that, the tune wrote itself. I knew that one chord came from Wagner’s Die Walküre, but I’d forgotten where it came up in the opera; and toward the end,” the unjazzlike repetition that delays the closing cadence, “I realized that I’d heard that from Dichterliebe by Robert Schumann. The idea wasn’t, like DJs, to listen to music for things to borrow, but, having listened to all that music for years, I had access to sounds to finish the song. I would never have had them otherwise.”

Marsalis makes a good point here, putting the emphasis in creativity on creativity, set in the deep focus of serious listening and learning that themselves were born of an evolving love of music. His echoes of classical composers are not a series of lightfingered lifts, packrat and gazza ladro; far more, they are a series of essential resonances of the ear, mind, and heart. Similarly, although Branford Marsalis has not been shy in public about naming Gustav Mahler his favorite composer, one can scan his recorded work from its beginning to the present without finding a specific Mahlerian trace—well, I may have detected one, once, in Branford’s dramatic arrangement of “Gloomy Sunday” on his previous ballad-dominated record, Eternal, but I think that’s it. In short, Branford Marsalis works from the inside out, puts creativity first, and doesn’t leave a fingerprint unless he means to.

From his earliest days before the public, he was the intuitive Marsalis brother, the one who didn’t have to practice day and night to solve major problems—even technical roadblocks—only needed to contemplate them from the correct angle to find the acuity of resolution he sought. He was the one for whom things came easy, whose intuitive intelligence could often find its way through a conceptual labyrinth more quickly than regulation procedural thought. He once told me, at one of his early rehearsals with Sting’s band, that he was simply someone who had wanted to play jazz and pretty much found out that he could. “So I don’t think I can take major credit for it,” he said.

Perhaps he doth protest too much, as someone or other says in Hamlet.

What is less well-known about this particular prince of Denmark is the length and depth and breadth of time he puts in when he wants to, or loves to, or feels the need. For example, during his stretch with Jay Leno’s show Marsalis listened studiously to lengthy passages—well, there only are lengthy passages—from Wagner’s Die Walküre and Götterdammerung every single, literal day; and one time years back, when I turned him on to a recording of Mahler’s 9th that opened up the first movement’s free polyphony to an extent that the performance he was familiar with did not, he told me what a revelation it was. Two or three months later I asked him if he was still listening to it and he said yes, and when I wondered how he liked the other three movements he said, “I haven’t gotten to them yet. I’m still listening to the first one.” A few years after that he decided to read Hamlet and King Lear, and spent a year doing it.

This dichotomy of apprehension, this apparent disjunction of fast and slow learning, shouldn’t be as startling as it sounds and actually isn’t all that odd, only an extreme case of something not so uncommon. I myself have lived on intimate terms my entire life with a writer who early on had the gift of gab, as a musician might have the gift of notes, but could only edge himself toward the fiction he wanted to write via decades of painstaking study of the fundamentals, and by slow contemplation of the primary processes of his chosen art. What’s striking in Branford’s case is that the mixed nature of this sort of self-education is so legible, and that it went on during a prolific and prominent public career.

Which leads us back to “The Bard Lachrymose.” The composer’s tone on the melody statement shows the benefit of his recent classical concertizing, and opens the soprano saxophone to clarinet and, especially, oboe sonorities, and to the expressive worlds suggested by both instruments. Calderazzo’s solo episode lightly embellishes the melody and twice introduces a hint of counterpoint, but essentially there is no improvisation on the piece. “I didn’t feel the song needed it,” Marsalis said. “I think that one of the great disconnects to what jazz is, post-bebop, is that the solo is the predominant ideal. I didn’t feel that a solo would enhance this song at all. It felt like a through-composed piece.”

It’s a different story on “La Valse Kendall”, which has “a chord structure that lends itself to a solo,” Marsalis said, while pointing out that although Calderazzo had written a lot of tunes in triple meter, this was his first true waltz. “I’ve spent years playing hip chord substitutions, but it doesn’t get any simpler than this,” the pianist added. That said, a couple of strategically placed flatted notes seem to suggest a choice of American and European ghettos, and the outcome tilts decisively toward the Old World in Marsalis’s lovely, almost courtly solo, finessed with grace notes, near-trills and some of the most subtly employed vibrato you’ll ever hear—although the combination may be familiar from an earlier, equally gorgeous solo on “Ruby and the Pearl”, from Eternal. The Yiddishkeit native to “La Valse Kendall”’s melody and chord changes is handled as delicately by its composer, who seems to cast an eye Spainward to add a series of what might be Sephardic nuances, and why not? In music truly felt and played, echoes pass from hill to valley to plain without regard to borderlines and fortifications and the conflicts that have built them. Music represents a better world ready for human habitation, now as always, if we choose it.

It also wouldn’t hurt if classical music radio, already loosening some of its constraints, loosened a couple more and gave these tunes a spin.

As for the other ballads on the set, “Die Trauernde” (“The Mourner”) is not a fragmentary lift from Brahms like the opening bars of 1987’s “The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born”—still on the shortlist of the leader’s best recordings—but an instrumental rendering of an early song by Brahms; for the original, Marsalis’s recommendation of the Jessye Norman/Daniel Barenboim recording is impeccable.

Calderazzo’s lyrical, eventually anthemic “Hope,” formerly a distinguished resident of Braggtown, is given a different but equally persuasive reading than the quartet’s on that disc. The composer takes a particularly expressive solo in which jazz and apparently classical elements find a natural balance and accord.

“Precious,” which Marsalis wrote within minutes of seeing the film of that name, is a tenor ballad that owes less to German romanticism than its companions: a stately, poignant composition well within the jazz ballad tradition featuring yet another piano solo that respects the melody too much to obliterate it with an autonomic improvisation, and a saxophone outing that begins hushed and bated, as if before a reality that might require awe in response, then a gradual lyrical blossoming that provides some of the most expressive playing on the date, although it never yields to the Coltranish proliferation of notes hovering on its horizon. The overall impression is that of restraint in the face of the sublime. My subjective response, anyhow: what’s yours? Marsalis’s control of breath, vibrato, and other delicacies of address to the horn are so unflawed that I was surprised to learn that he “was having serious tenor mouthpiece issues on that recording. It ran sharp in the higher register … I didn’t get a mouthpiece I could use until six weeks later, but just like in the old days, you go with what you’ve got.”

À propos: when I first heard Branford’s tone and attack on Wayne Shorter’s “The Face on the Barroom Floor”—the album’s odd man out—I was pretty sure he’d used a thicker reed in order to produce such a Waynish soprano sound, but no: “It’s all embouchure. And the room. The room’s great.” And why play the tune so Waynishly? “You can’t not play it Waynishly. You could try. One of the great things about jazz is that when guys write songs, the songs are such an extension of their personality that you’ve got two choices. The more popular approach is to say ‘Oh, I can’t play this song because it’ll sound too much like Wayne; I’ll change all the chords, or I’ll put it into 5/4, a different meter …’ That kind of individuality is a false idol, an illusion. ‘I don’t wanna sound like that guy.’ I’m a music fan, I love music. I’ve wanted to play that tune since I heard it with Weather Report, and then I heard it again with one of his bands—he played it and I said Dammit, soon as I get a chance I’m gonna play that song.”

It is, at the very least, a heartfelt, wholly knowledgeable tribute to a great musician and a formative influence.

It’s no big secret that a majority of Branford Marsalis’ best recordings, for all the fleetness and sometimes fury of his fast playing and the frequent ferocity of his quartet, have been ballads, many of them ascending to a rapturously lyrical climax. Songs remaining tunes are at least as fine as its ballads, and provide an electricity of inspiration and execution that, as far as I know, only jazz can generate and master musicians perform.

“Endymion” resembles Contemporary Jazz’s “Lykief” in a couple of respects: the Jarrettish tinge of its melodic line, and a rapid continuous rubato, a propulsive but inconstant tempo-field in which the melody generates the rhythm—something Keith Jarrett did more often in his early days than now. “Keith got that from Ornette Coleman,” Marsalis told me, “although with Ornette the ideas were more blues-based and then the tune often would go into swing. The only time I heard Keith do it the way we’re trying to do it here, was “In Front”, the first tune on his first solo album Facing You.” Branford also pointed out that in the present performance Calderazzo heard the tune in a sort of aggravated triple meter whereas the composer felt it to be more freely paced: knowing this may add to your appreciation of the complex interaction that evolved. “A lot of guys,” said Branford, “want to know what’s the tempo, the chords, the meter … you get so used to what everybody’s done.”

The album’s official closer, “Bri’s Dance,” also messes with the conventions. “Joey and I have been talking about doing a song like that for a long time. ‘Bri’ is a specific number of bars long and has specific chord changes, but if you play based on listening to the melody you can tell where a soloist is going, and you’re freed up: you don’t have to adhere to the rigidity of the form, you don’t have to play eight bar phrases. So that thing is just going all over the place.”

It is full of virtuosity and joy, and the liberty of interaction between piano and soprano demonstrates what dazzling depths of listening can be achieved at high speed, within the form of the composition and beyond it.

Earlier on, I made a distinction between the evolutionary paths travelled by Marsalis and Calderazzo, but despite their somewhat different starting points, in a more essential sense they’ve followed parallel trajectories from “mere” technical mastery of their materials—in quotes because it’s nothing to be sneezed at, and remains a workable starting-point besides—to greater expressiveness, melody, emotion: that is to say the elements of music that transcend genre and period to arrive at the kind of artistry that, in its deeps of inspiration and address, speaks not just to specialized fans of a form but to, you know, human beings, human souls, as such.

Songs represents the distances travelled along those arcs of development, and a series of agreements reached. The Darius Milhaud quote at the head of these notes is a touchstone for Marsalis, and might almost stand as the album’s motto. In the meantime I can tell you, having attended a recent concert in New York, that the revamped quartet of whom these two musicians form half has broken through into new territory on all fronts, and everybody better watch out. Songs is more than a contemplative pause, a quiet caravanserai beside a road on which a race is being run. It shows us the expressive interior of what has been, what’s here now and, poised on a powerfully achieved foundation, it looks directly into the blaze of what’s to come.