To one extent or another, jazz has always maintained a discriminatory dividing line between vocalists and instrumentalists. Instead of being viewed as equals — artists on par with all the rest, possessing the same good sense, skill, and stake in an artistic outcome — vocalists have often been unfairly stigmatized and interned in a separate category. But all of that has slowly been changing, due in no small part to a large and continually growing crop of vocalists who are consistently raising the bar.
For the past two decades, the one and only Kurt Elling has been a central figure in that category. He's both world-wise and street smart in his moves, able to touch on highbrow topics and base emotions with equal success. There's been a hint of vanity in some of his fine art, but it's never there without just cause. The man acknowledges his influences but remains a school of one, a force of nature who's capable of covering more ground than almost anybody. There's simply nobody else who's better suited to enter into an artistic agreement with one of jazz's most outspoken personalities — saxophonist Branford Marsalis.
Whether on or off the bandstand, Marsalis doesn't mince words or ideas. Due to that fact, few vocalists are really up to the challenge of entering his orbit and thriving in such a climate. In Elling, however, Marsalis has found one who's every bit his match. The saxophonist and his quartet mates are able to telescope focus toward Elling's warm, strong, and pliant voice, and Elling is able to accentuate the inherently melodic and lyrical qualities in this group's work. The beauty in Marsalis' music isn't cited often enough, as many tend to focus exclusively on the edgier side of his sound. This project rectifies that problem.
This playlist is as eclectic as one might expect given the architects at the drawing board. Everybody from saxophonist Sonny Rollins to vocalist Elis Regina and pianist Fred Hersch to poet Calvin Forbes is referenced in one way or another, and the music is suffused with graciousness, beauty, and, on occasion, heartbreak. Elling dons the face of Mr. Charisma on "There's A Boat Dat's Leavin' Soon For New York," maintains his status as the heir to Mark Murphy's throne of hip on "Doxy," delves into modern jazz Americana on Hersch's "West Virginia Rose," and plays it cool as the breeze on "Só Tinha De Ser Com Você." Through every one of those turns, Marsalis and company are right there with him, exploring every little and large event with the utmost respect for the music and the contributions of one another.
Understatement serves as a source of strength in much of this music, and fragility is as strong a lure as any of the aforementioned qualities. Case in point is Sting's "Practical Arrangement," a song that elicits an incredibly strong emotional response. That number alone is worth the price of admission, and it's not the only tearjerker. The Marsalis-Elling duo take on "I'm A Fool To Want You," while delivered with more poise and less vulnerability, belongs in the same category.
While there are far more ambitious outings in the respective discographies of both of these marquee names, there's nothing more arresting in either man's portfolio. Beauty becomes these musicians. They carry the torch of grace to the heavens in their own inimitable upward spiral.
Four stars: â˜… â˜… â˜… â˜…
Track Listing: There's A Boat Dat's Leavin' Soon For New York; Blue Gardenia; From One Island To Another; Practical Arrangement; Doxy; I'm A Fool To Want You; West Virgina Rose; Só Tinha de Ser Com Você; Momma Said; Cassandra Song; Blue Velvet; The Return (Upward Spiral).
Personnel: Branford Marsalis: saxophones; Joey Calderazzo: piano; Eric Revis: bass; Justin Faulkner: drums; Kurt Elling: voice.