It all started at a bar during a jazz competition two years ago. That’s when Branford Marsalis – a member of jazz’s royal family, and former leader of Jay Leno’s live band – and Kurt Elling, acclaimed jazz vocalist, floated the idea of making a record together. A year after that, Upward Spiral was born, a collaborative effort that truly demonstrates the chaotic ebbs and flows of jazz music. Along with their band, they brought this stunning work to The Triple Door, Seattle’s downtown supper club, for a three-night stand of genius live performances.
At the beginning of the show, Marsalis came to the mic to let the crowd know that pianist, Sean Mason, was making his first appearance with the band. In fact, he had just flown in from Japan the previous night and rehearsed with the band for the first time that day. Marsalis needed to ask his bassist, Eric Revis, his name. This is a valuable piece of information.
Their set list for the night echoed the album and it was a well balanced collection of songs full of emotion, yet with plenty of room for spontaneity. Marsalis’ mastery of both the tenor and soprano saxophones was awe-inspiring. He had the ability to run hot and stay cool at the same time. No matter how crazy his runs turned out to be, his eyes and body were always so calm and his tone never became erratic.
The preeminent vocalist in modern jazz, Elling has won every Downbeat Magazine award imaginable and, in Marsalis’ words, “his voice is always in tune.” He had an effortless, deliberate delivery to his vocals, as though he were telling a story in song. During “Practical Arrangement” there were many instances where his voice faded into a whisper, but those notes almost resonated more so than his grandest scatting. Speaking of scatting, his ability in that arena is garnering legendary status.
The most telling moments of the concert were those when Marsalis and Elling stepped off to the sides of the stage. The two icons took joy in stepping out of the spotlight to watch the bold personalities of their band shine. Drummer Justin Faulkner embodied pure joy, sweat flying off his brow during his more intense fills.
Bassist Eric Revis was the foundation of the band, standing strong in the middle of the stage and diving deep into the groove. Finally, Sean Mason on the keys demonstrated some gumption, keeping up with the seasoned musicians on one day’s rehearsal. He absolutely killed his solo during “I’m A Fool To Want you,” and it was further validated by the ear-to-ear smiles on Marsalis’ and Elling’s faces.
There were moments of levity, the continuous re-interpretation of the same song, and frankly some sheer jazz genius on stage. Jazz is truly a war of attrition, but instead of destruction, the musicians who are battling it out built something different on a nightly basis.