Although Branford Marsalis famously spent 1985 to 1987 with Sting and played with hundreds of singers during his four-year run as musical director of The Tonight Show, only two of the 29 CDs and DVDs that he lists in the jazz section of his website discography feature vocalists.
One is the 1992 album I Heard You Twice the First Time, on which blues legends B.B. King, John Lee Hooker, and Joe Louis Walker sing on a track apiece.
The other is Marsalis' most recent offering, Upward Spiral, a 12-tune recital by his working quartet — pianist Joey Calderazzo, bassist Eric Revis, and drummer Justin Faulkner — and the eminent singer Kurt Elling. The repertoire is expansive, spanning "new standards" (Sting's "Practical Arrangement" and Chris Whitley's "From One Island to Another"), the Great American Songbook ("Blue Gardenia," "There's a Boat Dat's Leavin' Soon for New York," and "I'm a Fool to Want You"), '50s Pop ("Blue Velvet"), '60s Folk (Oscar Brown's "Momma Said"), bossa nova (Antônio Carlos Jobim's "Só Tinha de Ser Com Você"), and vocalese (the late Mark Murphy's lyrics to Sonny Rollins' "Doxy," Elling's lyrics to Marsalis' "Cassandra Song," and Calderazzo's "The Return").
The end result is a high point in each artist's distinguished discography. For Elling, the proceedings are entirely congruent with his oeuvre since he entered the international spotlight via his 1995 Blue Note debut, Close Your Eyes, which established his penchant for mixing songbook standards, original poem-songs, lyrics to instrumental jazz standards à la Eddie Jefferson and Jon Hendricks, extended free associative "rants" analogous to Jack Kerouac's "automatic writing," and vertiginous vocalese improvs, all rendered with virtuoso chops, stagecraft, and finesse.
"Sonically I was hearing a male voice," Marsalis says, explaining why he decided to ask Elling to make a record during a chance encounter in 2014. "Only a handful of jazz singers sound like jazz musicians, and hardly any are male. Kurt's approach is consistently based on the jazz vocabulary. He sings in tune. His voice is very flexible, and I love the way he sounds."
For Elling, who cut his teeth with such world-class tenor saxophonists as Von Freeman and Ed Petersen during his formative years in Chicago, it seemed "obvious to say yes right away." He remains happy with that decision after many months of touring. "It's hugely inspiring to hear Branford and this band hit at this profound level of expression night after night, to challenge themselves to exceed whatever they did the night before," he says. "Sometimes what's happening on stage is so grand, it makes me laugh. Branford can hear 90% of the stuff I play before I play it, which keeps me in my place. If it's going to be like that, what can I do but try to live up to that standard?"
For Marsalis, the collaboration is the latest actualization of his stated preference "to have cats who can push you." His challenge with Elling, Marsalis adds, is "to support and coalesce around the singer, to make the music sound good. One thing I like about working with singers is that, if you're paying attention, it can change how you play. When we start playing, we always push out at the edges of the song, within the context of what Kurt is doing."
Another challenge, Marsalis adds, is "to match musically the emotion of the lyric" with his sound. "I'm wholly interested in sound," he says. "Sound that has the power to create emotion has more depth than a lyric ever could." Elling is similarly invested in the emotional resonance that a voice brings to a room. "I am able to shade the timbre of my voice so that even if you're listening in a different language, you'll know, ‘Oh, this guy is terrifically sad; his heart's breaking,' or ‘He's joking around with that,' or whatever other emotion is called for," he says.
It's an ideal match. "I'm proud of this project," Elling says. "I'm proud that Branford gave me the call, and the band has been uniformly gracious and supportive and kind. We dig a little deeper every time."