In describing Songs of Mirth and Melancholy, the recent album of piano and saxophone duets he recorded with longtime bandmate Branford Marsalis, pianist Joey Calderazzo seemed almost dismissive.
Like most of the recordings he has been associated with — be they solo projects or the numerous works undertaken during the past 12 years with Marsalis' extraordinary jazz quartet — Calderazzo views Mirth almost exclusively in the past tense. The jazz process for him involves immersing himself in the music, seeking something applicable from it that can benefit his playing, then moving on.
"What I will do is overdose on a project," says Calderazzo, who performs with the Marsalis Quartet on Thursday at the Grand Theatre in Frankfort. "I listen to it as a filter. And that's what I did with the duo record. What I'm filtering is, 'That's good.' 'I need to work on that.' 'That sucks.' 'Why did I do that?' 'That's cool.' 'That could be a tune.' And 'I should play more like that behind Branford, because it worked.'
"I'll do that, and then I'm away from the album, and then it's gone."
Well, yes — but not completely. True, Calderazzo's thoughts of late have shifted to a new Marsalis Quartet recording, the first since drummer Justin Faulkner joined the group ("It's a good one, man — probably my proudest work") and a concert recording with his own trio (with bassist Orlando le Fleming and drummer Donald Edwards). But as he reflects more on Mirth, a snapshot emerges. It's of a musical environment that the pianist said remains unique to one song on the record.
The tune in question is the album-closing Calderazzo original Bri's Dance. To illustrate, he vocalizes the song's stately melody — or at least the one that frames it.
"There's a part of that song where we are playing free, but the whole song is being implied. We're playing in a whole other time. It morphs into something really cool. We've played that tune a few times live and we have never, ever gotten to that place again. And it happened organically.
"It's not my best solo or Branford's best playing. It's what we did as a duo together. That, to me, was the really great part of what happened there."
Calderazzo, 46, said the process is just as unpredictable when it comes to music created by the Marsalis Quartet, which is rounded out by longtime bassist Eric Revis.
"If you could witness the process, you would be like, 'What?' Some of the arrangements come out of mistakes. Some of the arrangements we stumble upon. Some of the arrangements ... well, very few are talked about. So we just start playing and stuff develops. Then we'll play it for a while, and something else will change. It's a really neat way for things to happen. But there's not a lot of talking. There just isn't.
"For this new quartet record (tentative scheduled for release in March), we basically had three tunes written going into the session. Eric brought in two and I wrote one at the session. Branford was like, 'We're going to need that ballad, man, so finish writing it.' So I took an hour break and I wrote it. We did one take, and that's what's on the record."
A New York native now living in North Carolina (as is Marsalis), Calderazzo was introduced to international jazz audiences in the late '80s by another saxophone titan, the late Michael Brecker. Curiously, in Brecker's band, Calderazzo replaced Kenny Kirkland, the pianist he also succeeded in the Marsalis Quartet (Kirkland died in 1998).
"Mike and I kind of grew up together," Calderazzo said. "I was in his first band. Kenny did the record (1987's Michael Brecker), but really didn't do much touring. So I was right there from the get-go. And that was Mike's first real time as a bandleader. I wasn't the MD (musical director), but I was the MD. So Mike would be like, 'Well, what are we playing?' I'd say, 'Let's play this.' And he'd be like, 'OK, cool.' Anything I wrote, he would play.
"There was a period from '99 to '05 where I was playing with Mike and Branford both. I was behind the scenes, but I was on the road 240 days a year. I was doing three weeks with one and then running to Asia with another and then running back. Those were good times.
"I miss Mike every day. In the 20 years we were together, I don't think three days went by that I didn't speak to him. We talked all the time. He mentored me personally more than anything else. You get a bandleader to do something like that, then that's a special guy."