Branford Marsalis Quartet with Kurt Elling ‘Upward Spiral’ (OKeh) 4/5

A chance encounter in 2015 led to Branford Marsalis and Kurt Elling hooking up for a joint project and the results are here for all to admire. Accompanied by his long-time quartet, Marsalis operates in lyrical mode to Elling’s vocal pyrotechnics recalling his collaborations with Sting and the selection of standards and originals is at once challenging and entertaining in equal measure. Marsalis and his quartet have been in a rich vein of form cutting a series of critically acclaimed albums and pairing them with Elling was a musical marriage made in heaven.
As with other Elling recordings, the music would not be complete without new lyrics added to classic jazz instrumentals and on this occasion ‘Doxy’ is interpreted and treated to a groovy reading with scatting from the vocalist and fine tenor soloing from the leader. The busy opener, ‘There’s a Boat Dat’s Leavin’ Soon for New York’, is the ideal vehicle for some typical Elling storytelling and Marsalis impresses on soprano and Elling’s musings continue on the more improvisational sounding piece, ‘Momma said’. Branford Marsalis has developed into that most lyrical of musicians and a duet of just saxophone and vocals makes for a thrilling alternative version of, ‘I’m a Fool to Want You’.

For a delightful take on the Brazilian songbook, ‘Só Tinha de Ser Com Você’ is taken at a gentle bossa nova tempo and sung in Portugese with sensitive accompaniment on piano and soprano saxophone. Elling has become adept at performing straight ahead ballads and, ‘Blue gardenia’ is among the finest he has performed to date with the lovely tenor soloing of Marsalis recalling the great Ben Webster while a significantly slowed down rendition of ‘Blue Velvet’, best known these days as the title track to David Lynch’s 1986 cult film, is taken at the most sedate pace imaginable and accompaniment is pared down to skeletal format with bass, drums and saxophone. Ending matters on a high is, ‘The Return (Upward Spiral)’, which begins as an uplifting mid-tempo vibe with Elling easing his way through with sensitive piano and drum accompaniment before it is transformed part way through into an expansive quartet number. One of the finest jazz vocal albums of the year and with such a fine backing band that can stretch out at will, this is way beyond the usual accompaniment. One looks forward to these musicians hooking up for a live recording at some stage.

Tim Stenhouse