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Joey Calderazzo: Improviser in Top Form

R.J. DeLuke By

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Creative musicians are generally an insightful lot: people that have curious minds but also have a sense of direction—a sense of purpose, if not a search for it. They express what they see, what they experience. Pianist Joey Calderazzo is among those.

A man of extraordinary talent at the keyboard, he's held the piano chair in Branford Marsalis' band for some 11 years and also spent a long tenure with Michael Brecker. Both of those men have had a huge influence on Calderazzo, and he is unabashed about saying so. He carries lessons learned from those relationships. He also stays in touch with what fellow pianists are doing and with what's happening on the music scene. He's interested in probing music, not just playing it.

He's currently leading his own trio, while still being a vital cog in the Marsalis organization. In fact, 2011 saw the release of a duet record with Marsalis—Songs of Mirth and Melancholy (Marsalis Music)—and the recording of a new Marsalis quartet album to be released in 2012. It has no title yet, but Calderazzo is high on it.

Speaking in the fall of 2011, Calderazzo had just come off the European leg of a tour with his trio. He was about to set off again with his men—drummer Donald Edwards and bassist Orlando le Fleming—to Lebanon, Turkey, Norway and Italy. He was tired. Getting his own group out there requires a lot of energy. Traveling with Brecker or Marsalis is one thing, he notes. Negotiating his own trio around the globe is another. It isn't, he says, straightforward or glamorous. "I've been assured by everybody that no matter who you are, you've got to start somewhere," he quips. He looks forward to the trio performances, despite the rigor involved. He's glad to have his own group out there. Enjoying the performances makes it all worthwhile.

"I don't care how I feel, how tired I am, how far I traveled. I'll get up there and play," he says. "I don't look at my clock. I play. If I'm half dead, I'll play until it kills me. It could be a thousand people or one hundred people. It's the same to me. I hold a real high standard to my personal performance. I don't demand that out of my musicians because I know they're doing the best they can. Some shows are better than others."

Once thing is certain: His playing is always interesting, no matter the setting. He flies under the radar a bit in the jazz field, but to see him live—fingers flying, pushing the music, creating impressive sounds—is to know that he's one of those out there that is really doing it.

"I'm missing shows with Branford to pursue my own trio stuff, and he hasn't given me any grief," says the pianist. "He understands." Calderazzo is 46, Marsalis five years older. He calls Marsalis his best friend, a guy he's known since age 14. He was the best man at Calderazzo's wedding. "Branford and I are literally the odd couple. We are worlds apart in just about everything. He is completely well read, completely into politics. ... I'm not into politics at all. I do like history. He loves history. But Branford and I can talk for hours about life, about feelings, about relationships, about music—and just go on. And the thing that's really cool about Branford is he's an incredible listener. 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 notes, "I was really close to Michael [Brecker] also. Michael was a real hard-working guy. I learned a lot from both of these guys. The relationship I had with Michael was that of father and son. I lost my dad when I was 17, and I met Michael when I was 20. I was in his band when I was 21 or 22. I think I spoke to Michael almost every single day. I never went more than three days without speaking to Michael in the time that I knew him. I loved playing with him, but the relationship I had with him was very special."

Brecker died in 2007, a death that affected many in the music world, as the great saxophonist had given the world so much fine music. "With any kind of tragedy, as we get older it chips away at you. Michael was a tough one," says Calderazzo. "It makes you think that maybe that shitty solo or when I turn the beat around on that blues really isn't important anymore. I'm a firm believer in the importance of the relationships that we build, both personally and musically. At the end of the day, that's really all this is about."

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