Branford Marsalis Quartet with Kurt Elling: Band, singer teamed for lauded album Upward Spiral

Each year, there seems be a group in the world of music that creates a buzz of anticipation among fans. It could be the reuniting of a popular band. Sometimes it's a combination of musicians that, because of their own individual popularity, create anticipation about what the new musical result will be. Jazz is no different.
One buzz creator this year in jazz falls in the latter category, with the pairing of the dazzling Branford Marsalis Quartet with the most remarkable male jazz singer of the last two decades, Kurt Elling. “Upward Spiral,” the album Elling and the Marsalis band recorded last year, was nominated for the Grammy Award for best jazz vocal album. The musicians are touring in support of the recording, and that includes a stop Thursday night at Troy Savings Bank Music Hall. Billed as “Branford Marsalis Quartet with special guest Kurt Elling,” the concert is part of the venue's 37th annual gala celebration and serves as a fundraiser for the hall.

Elling has uncanny vocal chops and is known for melodic and harmonic experimentation, taking on the complex music challenges with all the skill of an improvising jazz instrumentalist. When playing things more straight on, say, a ballad, he is able to inject all the necessary emotion and bring a powerful story to listeners. He's been nominated for some dozen Grammy Awards and won the best vocal jazz album category in 2009 for “Dedicated To You: Kurt Elling Sings the Music of Coltrane and Hartman.”

Marsalis is the oldest son of a famed New Orleans musical family. That musical clan — father Ellis and brothers Wynton, Delfeayo and Jason — was awarded the designation of NEA Jazz Masters in 2011. His current quartet — including Joey Calderazzo, piano; Eric Revis, bass; and Justin Faulkner, drums — is one of the most powerful in the business, because of their individual talents and the fact that, as a long-standing working band, they have developed their own sound and work with a remarkable cohesiveness.

The idea for the band to do a project with a singer, said Marsalis last week en route to a concert in York., Pa., is something that came up a couple of years back. “I was hanging out at a bar in [Washington] D.C. during the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Saxophone Competition,” for which he was serving as a judge. The topic of a vocal album came up and he brought it up to the band. They agreed with the direction.

Who would sing? For Marsalis, Elling was the man. The two had met in passing as touring jazz musicians, but were not well-acquainted. At one of those crossings, “I saw Kurt and I said, 'We were just talking about you. We should do a record.' He said, 'Great. Give me a call.' And that was that.”

He said he views Elling as a true jazz musician, who can carry the emotional content of a song and who is “exciting. … He has the most flexible voice around and is always in tune.”

The resulting tour, said Marsalis, “is going great.”

To assemble the playlist, “We sat around, had a bunch of meetings and emails between the guys. Started putting songs in Dropbox folders. Then Kurt and I met at his crib and just talked about stuff. We came up with a set list that reflected some of our previous work, which was important to me.”

Many song suggestions were rejected, but eventually the list was compiled. The recording features a wide array of tunes, from George Gershwin's “There's a Boat Leaving Soon for New York,” to Sting's “Practical Arrangement.” “Blue Velvet” was selected, based on the Bobby Vinton version. It has standards like “Blue Gardenia” and “I'm a Fool to Want You” (done as an Elling/Marsalis duet), as well as original music written by the saxophonist and Calderazzo, over which Elling wrote lyrics.

There wasn't a lot of rehearsal for the recording. Rather, they hit the ground running — not uncommon in jazz circles.

“The word collaboration is not only overused, it's often misused,” Marsalis said. “But the idea was for it to be an actual collaboration.”

As for blending his muscular tenor sax sound and distinct musical personality with Elling's baritone, multi-octave voice, Marsalis said it was “No problem. I've worked with singers a lot. Especially in my younger years, before I moved to New York. I learned the painful way how to complement singers and how to blend in. The blending-in thing is something I started doing when I was working with Sting — understanding the power of the whole thing, instead of constantly looking for spots to solo in. That kind of carried over to this.”

It was in 1985 when he and other jazz musicians played with Sting on the British rock star's “Dream of the Blue Turtles” album (A&M) and toured for a time. Marsalis has since played periodically with Sting in concert.

Marsalis said the Troy audience can expect to see the quartet come out and perform one song. “The rest of the show is us and Kurt.”

The set list will be selections from the CD, but, he said with some glee, in the spirit of jazz musicians who are always seeking to find something fresh, something different, “it doesn't sound like the CD anymore.”