When saxophonist Branford Marsalis and vocalist Kurt Elling discovered each other, the world of jazz received an immense gift - they fit together so well musically they could be siblings.
The Kutztown University Presents! series finished its season Wednesday night in Schaeffer Auditorium with a concert by the Branford Marsalis Quartet and Elling that bristled with energy and dug deep into the fascinating array of songs from their album, "Upward Spiral."
The quartet, which also includes Joey Calderazzo on piano, Eric Revis on upright bass and Justin Faulkner on drums, function like a single organism. And when Elling joins them, he slips into the ensemble as if he has always been there.
After a hot, hectic overture by the quartet, with a thick texture and a gush of ideas, Elling emerged and the piece morphed into George Gershwin's "There's a Boat Dat's Leaving Soon for New York" from "Porgy and Bess." Their version, uptempo and swinging, turned it into an entirely different piece, expressing the "high life" in the song, and Elling inserted his signature "vocalese" with spoken words about boats and transportation into the mix.
In their duet during "Blue Gardenia," Elling handled his expressive voice like an instrument, and Marsalis handled his sax like a voice. Honey and perfume dripped from the tenor sax.
They dipped into some bossa with Antonio Carlos Jobim's "Só Tinha De Ser Com Você" in a danceable version in which Elling sang in Portuguese, albeit with a harder edge than the Brazilian singers.
In Chris Whitley's "From One Island to Another," with its tropical, zigzag melodies, Elling's distinctive style was evident: He doesn't emphasize vowels, like most singers, but uses the sounds of consonants on sustained notes to achieve variations in timbre. So in "another," he rode the "R" sound, pushing it through in a tiny buzz.
Elling gave a humorous, theatrical recitation of the Calvin Forbes poem, "Momma Said," over free improvisation by the quartet - a delightful interlude that gave substance to the line, "Each bite was a small miracle."
This segued into some Elling-style scat with the quartet along with solos by each quartet member, including a knockout drum solo. Marsalis' warm, soulful a cappella tenor solo led into the next song, which changed the mood entirely.
Sting's beautiful and devastating "Practical Arrangement" is one of his best. Like the flavors of a fine wine, the emotions it contains are complex and delicate and hard to identify.
Elling's interpretation, economical and stressing the vulnerability of the person talking, left me in tears without quite knowing why. Calderazzo's piano solo matched him, played with a tender intimacy.
They finished with "The Return (Upward Spiral)," by Calderazzo and Elling. The singer used his entire vocal range and many timbres in his performance. The piece ended with a minimalist coda, fading to tiny tones on horn and voice, and a one-handed ostinato on piano.