The Branford Marsalis Quartet and singer Kurt Elling combined in the first major concert of the 2017 Portland, Oregon PDX Jazz Festival. A packed audience in the capacious Newmark Theater heard a Thursday might performance that drew upon their recent album Upward Spiral. The principals listened intently to one another and appeared to be enjoying their work as much as they did in this earlier encounter.
With his rich harmonic palette and hard swing, longtime Marsalis pianist Joey Calderazzo generated audience enthusiasm equal to that shown the co-leaders. The strong support of bassist Eric Revis and drummer Justin Faulkner intensified as they buoyed the proceeding when Marsalis, Elling and Calderazzo were soloing. Calderazzo’s—no other word for it—fierce playing on the opening number set a joyous mood that suffused the concert and moderated only when tempos slowed on ballads.
One of those ballads was the 1950s Nat Cole hit “Blue Gardenia,” which Elling sang with affecting simplicity. He finished the piece on a high note held longer than a human oxygen supply might be expected to last. Marsalis’s ballad triumph, on soprano saxophone, came in an Antonio Carlos Jobim piece, “Só Tinha de Ser Com Você,” that is little-known compared to much of Jobim’s extensive output.
Following the PDX festival audience’s customary standing ovation and cheers, the concert ended with “St. James Infirmary.” Marsalis performed the piece with the New Orleans flavor that characterizes his best work. Elling’s obbligato, using a water glass and his voice to suggest trombone sounds, was an unexpected touch that fell just short of being vaudevillian.