As an ambitious young vocalist coming up on the Chicago scene in the early 1990s, Kurt Elling cultivated his sound by his sitting in regularly with some of the toughest tenors in a city known for producing take-no-prisoner saxophonists.
Masters like Von Freeman, Eddie Johnson and Ed Petersen encouraged him to get up night after night, despite his nagging suspicions that he was "frankly unqualified," says Elling, 49. "I tried to learn from all of those great players, how to be ready so I'm not the weakest link, the singer who slows anybody's progress down. It was both inspiring and intimidating, listening to them night after night, reacting to their ideas."
The training served Elling well, as he emerged later in the decade as the most celebrated male jazz singer of his generation. He's continued to work with supremely lyrical tenor players like Ernie Watts and Houston Person, making a point "to be comfortable around a great tenor sound," he says.
Elling returns to the Bay Area to perform Monday at Kuumbwa and Tuesday and Wednesday at Yoshi's as a special guest with the Branford Marsalis Quartet, a situation that's taken him to a whole different world than his previous tenor sax encounters.
In the early jam sessions, Elling was trying not to embarrass himself, while in recent years, he's hired saxophonists to join projects celebrating the legacies of John Coltrane and Frank Sinatra. But on Marsalis Quartet's recent album "Upward Spiral" (Marsalis Music/OKeh), he steps into one of jazz's most formidable combos and meets the group on its own terms.
Marsalis' extensive discography is conspicuously lacking in singers. Looking for a full-blown partner in improvisation, he recruited Elling because "he has a definitive jazz vocabulary, which is rare these days," Marsalis wrote in an email. "Because of his vocab, he doesn't have a one-style-fits-all approach."
Featuring powerhouse pianist Joey Calderazzo and bassist Eric Revis, who are both acclaimed composers and bandleaders in their own right, and the startlingly accomplished 25-year-old drummer Justin Faulkner, Marsalis' band has honed an emotionally taut, highly interactive approach that gives Elling plenty of sound to play with.
"Joey can go from incredible powerhouse stuff to the most tender, romantic and sonorous music, improvising these gorgeous moments," Elling says. "I find it very profound. He's a great listener, and he hears everything I play and don't play. Eric's back there holding it together with that giant beef-eating sound. And on stage, I'm right there at Justin's fierce left hand."
Elling and Marsalis spent some time trading lists of songs before they played a weekend run at Snug Harbor in New Orleans to break in the material. Beyond the patently beautiful music, what's fascinating about "Upward Spiral" is the way the quartet opens up space for Elling without altering its fundamental group sound.
"Branford is very against what the rest of us would think of as arrangements," Elling says. "It's here's the chart, memorize the melody lines and the words, and now we just play. We didn't have rehearsals as such. We played the gigs down in New Orleans, went in and recorded. That's the way he likes to do it."
The album opens with a magisterial version of "There's a Boat Dat's Leavin' Soon for New York," from "Porgy and Bess," and a ravishing rendition of the torch song lament "Blue Gardenia" that echoes a classic recording by Dinah Washington. Ranging far and wide, Elling and Marsalis play a sublime duo version of "I'm a Fool to Want You," breathe new life into Oscar Brown Jr.'s "Long as You're Living," and tear through Sonny Rollins' "Doxy" (with a lyric by Mark Murphy).
"He wanted to let go of any of my preconceived notions," Elling says. "Some standards I suggested were too standard. I'd say, 'What about so and so? No elbow room in there. I want there to be a lot more freedom. What about this? Nah, that's just corny. …' All of my additional suggestions got knocked down. He has such strong ideas of what goes and what doesn't."
Which doesn't mean Marsalis is averse to the occasional wildcard. One of the last songs they recorded is a wonderfully weird version of "Blue Velvet." Anything but campy, the song floats like an unhealthy haze, following Marsalis' direction to "'play it like we're ghosts,'" Elling says. "'We're dissolving, and we can hardly hold on to our instruments.' You've got to push a tune like that, push it out of its context and find a place to take it."