Few saxophonists are as comfortable in the exposed setting of a duo format as Branford Marsalis.
Songs of Mirth and Melancholy, made with the long-serving pianist in his band, Joey Calderazzo, is the third saxophone and piano only album in Marsalis' discography; the others are Loved Ones, recorded with his father Ellis in 1996, and Occasion, recorded with a fellow son of New Orleans, Harry Connick Jnr.
It doesn't greatly resemble either of those - not surprising since it explores Marsalis' rapport with a pianist with his own highly developed style. What is surprising is that they haven't done it before. Calderazzo joined Marsalis' quartet in 1998 after the death of Kenny Kirkland. Marsalis has said that Calderazzo was not just the best pianist to take over Kirkland's role, but the only one who could have done it, and through various changes of line-up he and Marsalis have remained the only constant factors in the unit. It had not occurred to either of them that a duo album might be a good idea until jazz impresario George Wein invited them to fill a spot at the 2009 Newport Jazz Festival. 'When it was over,' says Marsalis, 'I looked at Joey and said 'We gotta record'.'
This album does not replicate that set which, according to Calderazzo, lasted about 70 minutes and comprised only about four tunes. This album is approximately the same length, but is divided into nine tracks, four composed by Calderazzo, three by Marsalis and one each by Wayne Shorter and Johannes Brahms.
The inclusion of Brahms's Die Trauernde and of an epigraph by jazz-influenced classical composer Darius Milhaud, send signals as to how the two artists want this music to be evaluated.
In recent years Marsalis has devoted much energy to a classical career in parallel to his jazz one, and believes as a result he has grown as a jazz musician and improved technically as a saxophonist.
This is for the most part jazz as concert hall rather than nightclub music, although Calderazzo's One Way gets the album off to a rollicking start. That is followed by Marsalis' The Bard Lachrymose, which sets the tone for most of the rest of the album. The music is contemplative and has plenty of space in it, with Calderazzo left to develop many of his melodic ideas alone while his boss waits until he has something significant to contribute before coming in. Melody is the key to the set, and an area in which Marsalis and Calderazzo both excel.
Marsalis has never forgotten the melody of Shorter's Face on the Barroom Floor since first hearing it in 1985 on Weather Report's Sportin' Life album, and here he makes it his own.
Three other noteworthy jazz albums of saxophone and piano duets.
Brubeck and Desmond: The Duets (A & M, 1975): Dave Brubeck and long-time musical partner alto saxophonist Paul Desmond, playing outside their accustomed quartet format, an exercise that brings out the best in Desmond as a soloist and Brubeck as an accompanist.
People Time (Emarcy, 1991): Stan Getz had only months to live when he made these duet recordings with pianist Kenny Barron.
Flying Colors (Blue Note, 1998): Cuban pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba and New York tenor saxophonist Joe Lovano combine talents for an exhilarating set of high-level improvisation.