Saxophonist Branford Marsalis's quartet and singer Kurt Elling prepared for their upcoming recording in a rare four-night stand at Snug Harbor in New Orleans last week, and photo-journalist extraordinaire Marc PoKempner went each night, enthralled.
"It was sort of an open rehearsal for the recording, so the set list was the same every night," PoKempner reported by phone, "but it changed a lot, too. The first night Kurt asked the crowd, 'Does anyone here speak Portuguese? If so, you're going to want to leave now,' because he sang a lyric in Portuguese, reading it phonetically off some paper, and slaughtered the language. But by the fourth night, he had it down."
PoKempner knows Elling from Chicago, but he says in NOLA, Kurt learned he had to almost holler for attention. "He isn't known here, he doesn't perform here. People had come to hear Branford, who'd start out each night with what I gather was the Tonight Show theme. He's got a very energetic, swinging, fun band [Joey Calderazzo, piano; Eric Revis, bass; Justin Faulkner, drums] and though he himself isn't the most physically expressive, he blows his ass off, has a very strong tone, and gets up to play. He blew some very abstract stuff, even like something Fred Anderson would have played — but always brought those breaks back to the swinging, melodic hook. Branford's band did a couple of songs before Kurt came out.
"After the first two sets, in which he was kind of subdued, Kurt started to hit the audience hard; he even did some scat-singing, in full register. They did a song Sting wrote for Broadway show The Last Ship called 'Practical Arrangement.' It's like a little movie, about an older guy making a proposition to a woman, 'We could share a roof, I'd be father to your boy, we could sleep in separate beds, you wouldn't have to cook for me,' and then there's a point where he proposes 'Would it be so bad to be my wife?' — and the first time I heard 'wife' the way Kurt did it was a total surprise to me. It wasn't as much of a surprise after I heard it eight times, but it was very powerful every time.
"The pianist, bassist and drummer were each terrific in their own ways. On the last night, Dee Dee Bridgewater sat in with Kurt for a duet on 'Teach Me Tonight,' Delfeayo Marsalis played trombone on one tune, and Irvin Mayfield played flugelhorn.
"I told both Kurt and Branford, 'It's fun to watch you guys do something you don't already know how to do,' and they looked pleased, acknowledging they challenged themselves. It was really interesting to hear the music develop and deepen over these four nights."