Branford Marsalis Quartet, Kurt Elling bring ‘the thing’ to historic recording

Grammy-award-winning saxophone legend Branford Marsalis has always been about inclusion, opening those doors to everybody — not just the physics- and harmonics-minded jazz brainiacs out there unduly focused on chops and technical precision.
After meeting another Grammy-award-winning artist, jazz singer Kurt Elling, at a Thelonious Monk Institute competition two years ago, a seed germinated in Marsalis's mind to do a real jazz vocal album that included beautiful, accessible, but impressive melodies and ornate orchestration.

“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,” Marsalis elaborated in a DL Media release for an upcoming recording with guest vocalist Elling. “This is not jazz as a personal think tank, where people are only concerned with impressing everyone already inside of the tank with deconstruction and reharmonization. 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 combination of Marsalis and his Quartet's ability to inhabit almost any style of music with Elling's intuitive grasp of the emotional soul of any song situation worked in everybody favor's on the upcoming, June 10, 2016 album, Upward Spiral (Marsalis Music/OKeh Records at Sony Music Masterworks). It's the first recording between Marsalis and Elling, and judging by all the fun they had selecting the right covers and the right arrangements, probably not the last.

Elling's reputation for working well with others came in mighty handy. The mighty Marsalis Quartet with pianist Joey Calderazzo, bassist Eric Revis, and drummer Justin Faulkner is no house band. They're very educated, very opinionated, very intimidating professionals who often disagree about a lot musically. But they were on the same page about Marsalis's choice of Elling as the right vocalist for the job.

Once everyone was on board, it was time to go for it, with one week of performance rehearsals and recording in New Orleans to get the whole thing right. (Check out Marc PoKempner's firsthand account in Howard Mandel's Dec. 15, 2015 Arts Journal report, as the Marsalis Quartet and Elling performed a rip-roaring, four-night gig at New Orleans' Snug Harbor.)

A lot of time was admittedly spent on picking the right songs first. After a lot of give and take — Bobby Vinton's “Blue Velvet” in ghostly style, “I'm A Fool To Want You” as a vocal/tenor duet — the whole crew came up with unusual treatments that deepened the groove, maybe tempting the average listener to think twice about dismissing jazz as purely a cerebral experience.

“I usually reject the word ‘collaboration,' 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,” Marsalis explained. “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.”

The quartet and the vocalist contributed a ton of ideas into the project, all geared toward a songbook that nobody's quite heard before. “For example, I had been listening to the Oscar Brown song, ‘Long As You're Living,' for two years before the date,” Marsalis described. “The first time I heard Sting's ‘Practical Arrangement,' I called him and asked for a lead sheet, because I wanted to play that song with the quartet even before the idea of recording with Kurt came up. I also chose ‘Só Tinha de Ser Com Você,' a Jobim song that has not been done to death. I told everyone to study Elis Regina's version, because I wanted us to sound authentic rather than generic. Doing ‘Blue Gardenia' was my idea, while Eric originally suggested Chris Whitley's ‘From One Island' when we were talking about more recent songs.”

Elling's song ideas included pianist Fred Hersch's “West Virginia Rose,” “Doxy,” made memorable by tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins, and the quirky Calvin Forbes poem, “Momma Said,” that the quartet totally jammed on without any preamble once in the studio.

As for singing in a formidable, hardcore jazz instrumental band like Marsalis's, Elling was down. “I love singing with a hard-hitting band,” Elling affirmed. “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.'”

Elling also found working with Marsalis and his quartet to be a luxury. Since these guys know their stuff inside and out, the sky's the limit. “My thing is always about tailoring what I do to the vision and personality of the band, and Branford's quartet is a real working band, which is both an incredible luxury and incredibly important for the music. They provided everything on a silver platter,” Elling said.

In return, the instrumentalists in Marsalis's Quartet brought their “A” game without holding back, either — save for toning down the extravagant solos. “No one in the band had to make adjustments, because good musicians can play many styles of music,” Marsalis asserted. “We're fully engaged with one another when we're playing, so it was easy to engage with Kurt. The only adjustment was not to play long solos, but if making the music sound good means playing less, you play less.”

No matter what the cover, chances are any recording between Branford Marsalis and Kurt Elling is bound to please both jazz fans and everyone else.