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Branford Marsalis and Delta Rae come from Durham to demonstrate Carolina intensity

Published February 1, 2013 10:01 am

Music • Veteran jazz bandleader and young folk-rock band proud of where they come from and where they've been.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

As music writers, we search for connections between musicians, no matter how threadbare.

For example, up-and-coming folk-rock band Delta Rae has appeared on "The Tonight Show" two times since its debut album was released last summer, and Branford Marsalis was once the bandleader of "The Tonight Show."

Another slim connection: Delta Rae band members and Marsalis live in Durham, N.C.

But the best connection is that both will headline in Utah within the next week: Delta Rae will make its Utah debut on Park City's Eccles Center stage on Saturday, while Marsalis will return to Utah with his famed collection of saxophones and three other top-flight musicians on Tuesday.

Delta Rae's Eric Hölljes and Marsalis talked to The Tribune about Durham, their bands and not a lick about Jay Leno.

Delta Rae • This live-wire band with four lead singers was signed to a major-label deal by the legendary Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee Seymour Stein, vice president of Warner Bros. Records and a co-founder of Sire Records.

The sextet began as a band of literal brothers, Eric and Ian Hölljes, who performed as a duo while attending Duke University. They enlisted their younger sister, Brittany Hölljes, and then asked another singer, Elizabeth Hopkins, to join the band.

"Our vision was that you can do something powerful with four voices that you can't do with three voices," Eric Hölljes said. "Each of the voices has a unique quality. Elizabeth has a raspy, old-soul voice that we loved and wanted to write for."

Mike McKee, on percussion, and Grant Emerson, on bass, joined the fold in 2010. McKee doesn't just drum on a regular old kit — he also has a penchant for banging on trash cans, which adds an earthy, dynamic aspect to the often lusty and always robust harmonizing. "I didn't see trash-can drumming coming," Hölljes admitted, but it works.

Hölljes, who began studying electrical engineering until surrendering to the big questions of philosophy at Duke, wasn't interested in Duke's acclaimed School of Music. "Any time music becomes too structured, I lose interest," he said.

The matriarch of the Hölljes family was born and raised in Durham, and that's where the band now lives. For a long time, Durham was considered "the always-neglected child" of the triangle of North Carolina cities Chapel Hill and Raleigh, Eric Hölljes said. But now Durham, known as "Bull City," has an up-and-coming music scene, he said. "Downtown is really starting to come alive," he said. "Durham is now on the map."

Besides Marsalis and Delta Rae, the scene includes popular bands and musicians such as Carolina Chocolate Drops, The Mountain Goats, and Megafaun; members of Superchunk, Chatham County Line and the Avett Brothers also live in Durham.

Branford Marsalis • The saxophonist and bandleader of the Branford Marsalis Quartet grew up in Louisiana and has lived on both coasts.

But nearly a decade ago, Marsalis picked up his family and moved again to the South, where he appreciates the small-town vibe of Durham and neighbors who say hello. "New York and Los Angeles are the same place, with a slightly different smell," he said.

It wasn't until around 1999, when he was nearly 40, that Marsalis said he became serious about studying his craft. "I was just living off my talent," he said. He had just finished a stint touring with Sting, where people would tell him that he was an amazing player. But it wasn't until he started poking his head into jazz and classical circles that he was told the truth. "They told me I was terrible, and 'You suck,' " Marsalis said.

Since then, he plays the saxophone every day (instead of once a month, which was his practice) and has assembled a quartet that features Joey Calderazzo on piano, Eric Revis on bass and young Justin Faulkner on drums.

Faulkner is headstrong and thinks highly of himself, Marsalis said, but added that "it's rare to find a person that young with such an extraordinary talent." When the drummer joined the band three years ago, each of the three other members gave him a list of things he needed to work on. "Over a period of two years, he addressed everything we had on our lists," Marsalis said.

But setting aside minor squabbles, Faulkner's talent has elevated the band. "We always play with an incredible intensity," Marsalis said. "[But] we had to relearn to match his intensity."

The most recent album from the quartet is "Four MF's Playin' Tunes,"and the remarkable aspect is that this record has two originals by each of the three veterans of the band. Marsalis said he always wants to record music from the best of what is out there, regardless of who wrote it. In music, as in football, a quarterback might get the credit and glory, but the on-field generals are only great when they have a great offensive line.

"You can't have a band unless they are equals. Mathematics says you can't write 10 great songs [for one album]," said Marsalis, before adding: "Stevie Wonder did it once."

Calderazzo and Revis have played with Marsalis for years. But then there's his road manager and sound engineer, who have worked with him 27 and 22 years, respectively. "I guess it means I'm not as much a jerk as people say I am," he joked.

Get ready, Utah. Bull City is coming to Salt Lake and Park City, and Delta Rae and Branford Marsalis have another thing in common: They're both known to bring the noise in electrifying live shows.

dburger@sltrib.com

Bull City state of mind

Delta Rae

When • Saturday, Feb. 2, 7:30 p.m.

Where • Eccles Center, 1750 Kearns Blvd., Park City

Tickets • $20 to $67 (discounts for Summit County students and teachers, seniors and children); 435-655-3114; day-of-show box office opens at noon

Branford Marsalis

When • Tuesday, Feb. 5, 7:30 p.m.

Where • Kingsbury Hall, 1395 E. Presidents Circle, University of Utah campus, Salt Lake City

Tickets • $34.50-$64.50; kingsburyhall.utah.edu; $5 for U. students with valid ID

Parking • Free parking is available at Rice Eccles Stadium, with shuttle service available from south side of the lot before and after the performance.