Things are looking up for saxophonist Branford Marsalis and vocalist Kurt Elling, who will add a shared title to their respective discographies. The Branford Marsalis Quartet will release Upward Spiral, featuring Elling as a guest vocalist, on June 10. The album will be released via Marsalis Music on OKeh Records.
The album, Marsalis' first new leader project since 2014's In My Solitude (Marsalis Music/Sony Masterworks), reunites the pioneering saxophonist with his longtime quartet, made up of pianist Joey Calderazzo, bassist Eric Revis and drummer Justin Faulkner. The group's previous album, Four MFs Playing Tunes, was released in August 2012, and earned a 4-star review in the October 2012 issue of DownBeat.
Recorded during a weeklong session in New Orleans, the album is a collection that blends Great American Songbook staples, modern jazz standards and popular music mainstays from a diverse array of composers.
In an announcement from the record label, Marsalis explained that the goal from the outset of this project was to create a true feeling of partnership.
"I usually reject the word 'collaboration,'" Marsalis said, "because it implies a third thing from that which each collaborator does well. I don't need a collaborator to do what I normally do, and Kurt doesn't, either. But this time, none of us were going to do what we normally do. The goal here, even though he sings lyrics, was to highlight Kurt's voice as an instrument."
Elling, who released the album Passion World on Concord in 2015, welcomed the opportunity to record with Marsalis' quartet.
"I love singing with a hard-hitting band," he said. "I didn't want Branford's band to feel that it had to hold back because a singer was there. To be welcomed into the quartet's circle, which is all about new challenges and hard blowing, was very important to me. When I asked Branford what to bring about a week before the date, he said 'Don't worry, you've got the thing.' So I brought 'the thing.'"
Regarding the album's genre-spanning song material, Marsalis noted that all five musicians had input. "Everyone in the band is always listening to all kinds of music," Marsalis said, "so it's not as if we had to go out and do research on vocal records."
Selections from the new album include Oscar Brown's "Long As You're Living," Sting's "Practical Arrangement" and Jobim's "Só Tinha De Ser Com Você." The album also features arrangements of the Nat King Cole-affiliated "Blue Gardenia" and Chris Whitley's bluesy "From One Island To Another."
A version of Sonny Rollins' "Doxy" with lyrics by Mark Murphy is also included on the disc, as are two classic ballads, "Blue Velvet" and "I'm A Fool To Want You."
"My philosophy of jazz is that it should be about strong melodies and a great beat, and every song here has a melody that you can hold in your mind, that you can sing," said Marsalis. "This is not jazz as a personal think tank, where people are only concerned with impressing everyone already inside of the tank... This is the kind of music that should expand our base to include people who would like jazz if it were friendlier. From the minute Kurt started performing with us, it was all good."
The Branford Marsalis Quartet featuring Kurt Elling will be a headliner of the 2016 Monterey Jazz Festival, which will take place Sept. 16–18 in Monterey, California.
To read an interview with Kurt Elling from 2011, click here.