After more than a decade of working together in a quartet, Grammy Award-winning saxophonist Branford Marsalis and his longtime piano player Joey Calderazzo are setting out on their own. The idea for a duo collaboration album was not born in the studio, but rather on a golf course.
As amateur golf buffs, Marsalis and Calderazzo often would play together in celebrity tournaments. Sometimes, the organizers would ask the pair to perform something, but Marsalis would beg off with the excuse that there was no acoustic piano on the course.
“One year they invited us and there was a damn piano,” Marsalis recalls.
Enjoying the music they made together on the green, Marsalis decided to just invite Calderazzo to play with him as a duo at the 2009 Newport Jazz Festival.
“At the end of that concert in August, I said, ‘Hey, I’m booking studio time,’” Marsalis says.
The studio session resulted in this summer’s release of the pair’s debut duo album “Songs of Mirth and Melancholy” on Marsalis’ own label. The pair will perform songs from the album on Monday evening at Montgomery College’s Robert E. Parilla Performing Arts Center in Rockville.
Marsalis is a member of a family jazz dynasty that earned him, his father and three brothers the Jazz Masters Fellowship Award from the National Endowment for the Arts in 2011. His career includes three Grammy Awards, a Tony Award nomination for the score of the Broadway revival of “Fences,” a stint as music director of “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno” in the 1990s, and acting roles in movies such as “Throw Mama from the Train” and “School Daze.” In addition to his work with his quartet, Marsalis performs as a soloist with classical ensembles and orchestras.
The collaboration with Calderazzo is not the jazz and classical saxophonist’s first duo recording, having also recorded with his father Ellis Marsalis Jr. (“Loved Ones,” 1995) and longtime friend Harry Connick Jr. (“Occasion,” 2005).
Calderazzo joined Marsalis’ quartet in 1998, replacing the late Kenny Kirkland.
“Being his piano player, it is sort of a natural progression to scale down and play something like this,” Calderazzo says.
For Calderazzo, playing in a duo is more difficult than working as part of the Branford Marsalis Quartet because he must think about providing all the elements usually filled by the other instruments of the quartet.
“There is no bass, there are no drums, but I have to supply all of that for Branford,” Calderazzo says. “I have a big job, but it’s rewarding.”
Marsalis found the experience of just working with Calderazzo very much the same as working with him in the quartet in terms of the interplay of their instruments, but felt they each had a heavier load to carry.
“Much like chamber music we have to achieve a maximum of musical efficiency with fewer instruments,” Marsalis says.
Showing his chops on tenor and soprano saxophone, “Songs of Mirth and Melancholy” stays true to its name with compositions evoking a range of emotions. The nine-track album consists of seven original songs and covers of Wayne Shorter’s “Face On the Barroom Floor” and Johannes Brahms’ “Die Trauernde." The album features three new compositions by Marsalis including “Precious,” inspired by the movie of the same name. Much of the collaboration album’s composition was figured out separately ahead of time before meshing together in two days in the recording studio in North Carolina.
Calderazzo “wrote tunes, I wrote tunes, and it all sort of worked itself out,” Marsalis says.
The pianist contributed two new compositions “One Way” and “La Valse Kendall” and new versions of two songs from other albums.
“I can do anything and Branford will follow, and vice versa,” Calderazzo says.
Besides cues in the title of the album, Marsalis enjoys allowing the listener to project their own thoughts and experiences onto the music.
“Instrumental music can be about whatever you want it to be about,” he says.
Marsalis feels his live show provides a “respite” from the normal concert-going experience where the listener is bound into the lyrics of the songwriter.
“I want people to have a musical open mind and let the songs mean whatever they mean,” he says.
Currently the pair are performing as a duo in between gigs with the quartet, and Calderazzo believes they will continue to grow when they are able to spend time on their duo collaboration exclusively.
“We’ve done maybe 10 shows and they’ve been spread out,” he says. “The real growth will be when we have three weeks of shows and six shows in a row and that’s when the evolution will take place.”
Marsalis says that in preparing for this first duo record with Calderazzo, he has not worried about directly marketing the record because he believes the project has staying power and will be embraced over time.
“I feel this record will have a very long life span because of the nature of what is it,” he says.
Branford Marsalis and Joey Calderazzo will perform songs from their duo collaboration album, “Songs of Mirth and Melancholy,” at 8 p.m. Monday at Montgomery College’s Robert E. Parilla Performing Arts Center, 51 Mannakee St., Rockville. Tickets are $30, $28 for seniors and students. Call 240-567-5301 or visit www.montgomerycollege.edu/PAC.