When Branford Marsalis invited Kurt Elling to record the album Upward Spiral with his long-running quartet, he gained a front-line partner as well as a charismatic vocal lead. Elling doesn't just interpret a song, he inhabits it, drawing out its character through phrasing, note choice and tone. As the CD also proved, he is an ideal foil for the trenchant lyricism of the saxophonist's aesthetic.
One year on, and the partnership flourishes. At this long, single-set performance, vocals intertwined with sax, mood-soaked harmonies were bittersweet and solos dug in, veered off at angles and stopped on the point of a pin.
The quartet made clear their creativity from the off, with the opening instrumental "Mighty Sword". Written by pianist Joey Calderazzo, the piece began with rippling two-handed piano, tightened into a cantering swing and, fuelled by Justin Faulkner's muscular drums, ended at a gallop.
Elling entered with "There's a Boat That's Leaving Soon for New York", from the Gershwin opera Porgy and Bess. The vocalist captured the song's mixture of seduction and menace with louchely crooning vocals underscored by a huckster-styled monologue at the end. "Blue Gardenia" came next, sax and vocals poised and melancholy; then Jobim's "Só Tinha de Ser Com Você" morphed from light touch bossa nova to fiery boogaloo.
As the evening progressed, Marsalis and Elling precisely matched each other's intonations on the Chris Whitley poem "From One Island to Another", twinned soprano sax shout with vocal falsetto on "As Long as You're Living", and riffed and faded to a whisper on "The Return (Upward Spiral)". The first encore, "I'm a Fool to Want You", was a beautifully played duet that showcased each musician's sensitivity and range.
The highlight, though, was the long-sustained, smoothly vibrating harmony that capped a spellbinding reading of Sting's homage to the lovelorn, "Practical Arrangement".
The band played an equal part, and their surging contemporary swing fuelled improvisations that, though long, had a clear arc. Calderazzo's controlled constructions and two-handed technique particularly impressed (helped by the fact that Marsalis was under-amplified to start with). But the band are equal to most stylistic challenges, and here delivered free jazz rattles and hints of reggae with equal confidence.
The evening ended with two UK guests, pianist Julian Joseph and vocalist Cleveland Watkiss, jamming on "St James Infirmary". It was joyous, but remained rooted in the song's solemn intent.
Four stars: ★ ★ ★ ★