Saxophonist Branford Marsalis’ Quartet has an illustrious 20-year history spanning a series of 15 powerful albums that have tackled everything from John Coltrane's A Love Supreme in its entirety, to 2012's scorching Four MFs Playin' Tunes − always giving acoustic modern jazz a hefty kick up the behind. Yet working with a singer had never been on the Ouartet's cards − until now. Multi-Grammy Award winner Kurt Elling stepped up to the plate for what could be his finest vocal album to date, Upward Spiral, taming his velvety virtuosity to work within Marsalis' fiercely intelligent vision of contemporary swing, ballads and blues. In a forthright interview Stuart Nicholson speaks to the album's two principal protagonists about how they forged their musical partnership
Saxophonist Branford Marsalis likes a challenge. Whether in classical music it's mastering John Adams' Saxophone Concerto − "Brutal, a very difficult classical piece, it took me four months to learn it, but well worth it in the end" − or in jazz by progressively setting the bar of achievement higher and higher for his quartet, he's never content to rest on his laurels. For the last couple of years he's toyed with the idea of adding another musician to his quartet, which is now something of an institution in jazz having been formed in 1996 and has seen very few personnel changes since. His idea was to add a vocalist and he kicked the idea around with the band members − Joey Calderazzo on piano, Eric Revis on bass and Justin Faulkner on drums. "We got into who was the best singer to work with us," Marsalis recalls. "My candidate was Kurt Elling, because he had the most flexible voice around, always in tune and he's a true jazz musician."
Marsalis had met Elling at a Thelonious Monk Institute competition a couple of years earlier and floated the idea of doing a record then. Time passed, and as Kurt Elling recalls it. "We had been bumping into each other at places like North Sea [Jazz Festival] and a couple of clubs in the States, and he always seemed like he was really happy to see me, which was a lovely thing to have happen, and he reiterated a couple of times, 'Man, we've got to make a record together', and I said 'We should, I'm ready − any time!' And then I don't know exactly when it was, maybe a year ago, the call came in and 'Let's actually do this.'"
A recording studio in the Ellis Marsalis Centre for Music in New Orleans was booked for the second week in December 2015, and then came the tricky bit − picking the kind of repertoire that would suit the singer, the quartet and the soloists. This set up a series of intense conversations that go to the heart of how audiences and jazz musicians actually perceive jazz.
"The intent of jazz has completely changed," observes Marsalis. "Songs have now become − to my ear − vehicles tor improvisation. The song becomes a vehicle to allow the soloist to shine as an individual, so the question then is not whether it's a good song or a bad song, because a song like 'Lover', which is really a bad song, has chord changes that are really difficult, so the musician will play that song, which has difficult changes, without recognising that the people coming to the concert, the normal people, they don't hear music like that, so they don't know whether [the changes are] hard or not. They just know if it keeps their interest or if it doesn't. The thing I learned from all my years playing popular music is that in popular music you don't get bogged down in minutiae like that because you’re trying to get an audience to like your music, but in jazz most of the guys are just playing for each other, so it's a perpetually internal conversation. Once I was able to recognise those two realities then I just started applying principles I learned from popular culture to what I play in jazz.
The one thing I learned was it doesn't really matter what the changes are, it matters what the melody is, and if the melody Is good then the song can endure, but if the melody is not good then the song becomes just another of those songs which musicians talk about, like ‘Giant Steps’. So I avoided all that kind of shit, it wasn't part of the discussion.
Kurt recalled the conversation we had [about selecting songs for the album] and he was very accurate in the way he recalled it because he made me laugh because he was playing all these songs and I was like, 'Naw, we're not playing that,' 'Naw, we're not playing that,' and he said, 'What's wrong with these songs?' and I said, 'They’re really bad songs,' so he said, 'I think these songs are hip,' and I said, 'You think these songs are hip because you already know how you're going to approach the song. Like this song fits well with the stuff you like to do on songs, which, by the way, you're not going to be doing any of that anyway, there's not going to be any vocalese on this record!' 'He said, 'What! What do you want?' I said, 'There are two things for me in a song, melody and motion, and if it has forward motion and it's a great melody we'll do it, if it doesn't we won't, so you have to find a way to make your shit work on songs you don't know.'"
Once the ground rules were established, the ideas started flowing. "My chief goal was to give the best that I could to Branford's vision of what he wanted to have happen," said Elling. "I'm very happy he took my suggestions on a handful of compositions, and I'm very proud my lyrics are appearing on one of Branford's compositions, and also one of Joey's. Man, I'm just thrilled with the way the thing turned out and I'm pretty sure nobody had to slow down and put training wheels out for me, 'cos we had a great time together."
Gradually a core repertoire came together. "I had been listening to the Oscar Brown song 'Long as You're Living' for two years before the date," recalls Marsalis. "The first time I heard Sting's 'Practical Arrangement' I called him and asked for a lead sheet because I wanted to play that song with the quartet, even before the idea of recording with Kurt came up. When I sent it to Kurt, he said, 'Hey man, great tune, but it's a bit of a downer isn't it? Aren't there any happy tunes on that record?" But when we started doing it, he was like wow, ok, I was glad to do it because Sting is a fantastic songwriter. Since Kurt thought there was too much melancholy, I came up with Gershwin's 'There's a Boat Dat's Leavin' for New York.' I also chose 'Só Tinha de Ser Com Você', a Jobim song that's not been done to death. Doing 'Blue Gardenia' was also my idea while Eric [Revis] came up with Chris Whitley's 'From One Island'."
Elling's input included 'Doxy', using the lyrics singer Mark Murphy introduced, 'West Virginia Rose' by the pianist Fred Hersch and he also contributed lyrics to the Marsalis composition 'Cassandra' and to the Calderazzo composition 'The Return (Upward Spiral)', which gave the album its title, Upward Spiral. But he was also fascinated by the kind of material Marsalis was drawn to, "I said, 'hey man, let's play 'Blue Velvet'," Elling recalls. "Branford said, 'well, what do you want to do with it?' And I know Branford doesn't do 'arrangements' so we weren't going to change the chording or the melody, I said, 'man, let's play this like we're ghosts, let's play it like we can hardly hold onto our instruments and we're just fading away.' And he said, 'Huh! Ok, let's try that'. Where things were a little more preconceived, it had much more to do with Branford's approach to the original chord changes, or the most original chord changes we could find, and tempos that had been tested out by the greatest of our predecessors, namely Miles [Davis] or people of that stature. But the rest was open season."
Prior to the recording date, the quartet plus Elling were booked to play four days at the New Orleans jazz venue Snug Harbour, where the material was tried out in front of a live audience, and what worked was retained and what didn't was dropped. "With us, we were always thinking 'What kind of song is it?', 'What does the song mean?', not 'What are the changes?'" says Marsalis. Because the songs are not hard, they're really not, they were designed to be successful, so they're simple. So rather than spend all our time getting bogged down with changes, we try to listen to the sound of the song and react to what the sound is. So we got the set list together, did eight concerts in New Orleans before the recording, had two days off to reflect, and then we recorded."
What is remarkable about Upward Spiral is that it embraces songs that most jazz fans will never have heard of, yet they hang together to provide a true 'album' experience, a performance arc with a beginning, a middle and an end. There's some remarkable playing by Marsalis and Calderazzo and an excellent summation of the vocalist, as singer and instrumentalists unite with an equal stake in the music's artistic destiny. Though Elling entered the musical world of a quartet with years of shared musical experiences under their belts, he succeeds in creating what is probably his finest artistic statement as a vocalist to date. So, from the outside looking in, being in the hot seat brought the very best out of the vocalist. "Yeah, I guess you can put it that way," says Marsalis. "I never really thought it was a hot seat for him at all because he has great musical instincts. It's so easy, particularly with the rhetoric jazz musicians use − the way we talk about music − to approach music like the whole quest of it is to find songs that make you sound good, and then that's what you do for the rest of your life, as opposed to challenging yourself and learning how to function inside the music.
"I heard Kurt's records and I realised he had a very flexible voice, meaning that he could sing a multitude of styles, and he could sing with dynamic range and was more than a jazz musician − he was an actual jazzer. Kurt's a jazz guy, he has a jazz vocabulary, so I knew we'd be ok there, and he's not only 'just a jazz person,' so when we did, for example, that song 'One Island to Another,' he knew exactly what to do. And I think that's the thing I always look for in musicians. I don't allow myself to get fooled by virtuosity. Virtuosity is not an indicator of musicianship, so when I'm listening to records I'm not listening to how well a musician plays, I'm listening to how well they react to the situation that's in front of them. And when it comes to Kurt, I knew the guys [in my band] could do it, so it really wasn't a quartet with a singer, it had become a quintet because of Kurt's ability to hear music and react to his surroundings."
One of the highlights of the album, 'I'm a Fool to Want You', is a duet between Marsalis and Elling. As Marsalis tells the story, he really wasn't interested in doing any kind of duet. "That was Kurt's idea!" says Marsalis. "He pressured me, we were in there two days and it seemed like every hour it would be, 'Man, would you like to do a duo?' and I'd say, 'We ain't doing a duo song!'. So, the second day he said, 'man, we should do a duo', and I said 'fine! What song do you want to do?'. He said, 'Why don't we do 'I'm a Fool to Want You', I said, 'Rob [the engineer] we're going to do a duo song'. And in my mind I'm going we're never going to put it on the record, but I'll appease him. And when we were mixing, I was, 'Oh, this is pretty good, I guess it's going to be on the record now! Fuck!'. The intention was to placate him, I didn't think it would make the record, but he sang his ass off. I enjoy this record because it's one of those where my function is different. He's in the place where I normally am, so I have to play a support role, and that's the strength of it, to get the band − Joey, Eric, Justin and me − to play in a manner that is not associated with the way we normally play.
"One of the things that often attracts people to playing jazz is the complexity, its potential for complexity and difficulty; I'm beyond that. I'm an old man, 55! I'm not 20-years-old standing on the stage and viewing the audience as my enemy, or even worse, 'not my intellectual equal', I'm way smarter than that now. But with the band, we're very immature socially, you'd say 'man, these guys are 10 years old', when we're hanging out. When I use the word 'old' I'm not speaking pejoratively at all, but I remember what I thought about the world when I was 25, and since then I have aged and grown, and I'm OK with it. I play music much better than when I was 25! It's not really possible to play the way I play now and be 25!
"I like the way my life went along, I know way more music from the way I went about it, because when guys who have been playing jazz since they were 14 or 15 start to play something in the pop vein they don't know how to economise, they don't know anything about it. Like one guy was telling me, I was listening to James Brown while sitting in the dressing room at one of those jazz festivals, and he said, 'Yeah, man. I never understood that big deal about him, that song is just the G7 chord over and over again!' And I said, 'You can't hear it can you?'. He said, 'I can hear it, it's G7', and I said, 'You can't hear it!'. And the guy got kind of upset. And if you think James Brown is all G7, then you're all process and no music, and when I heard that guy play, yeah, all process no music. So I appreciate my processes and how I graduated to where I am now, I prefer this to having been someone who has listened to jazz exclusively since I was a kid because there are things in my sound that are the amalgam of all my musical experiences."
And just in case you think Branford Marsalis is slowing down just because he's 55, think again. One look at at his tour schedule with the quartet and Kurt Elling on Branford Marsalis.com sees dates that extend for almost two years, and that's not even counting the classical music concerts Marsalis is giving in between. In today's musical world Branford Marsalis is a musician with a capital M, a remarkable role model for young musicians who represents the epitome of the jazz musician's art. Yet he's never lost his wicked sense of humour. Reflecting on his upcoming touring he quips: "It's funny, when you get a singer in your group, you're viable, it's like, 'Oh, Kurt Elling, we'll take that!'. If only life were that simple."