Melody is King for Branford Marsalis: ‘Upward Spiral’ comes to Scottsdale with Kurt Elling

Getting back to the basics of melody is no easy job. Ask Branford Marsalis.
“My definition of melody is a sequence of notes so strong that, if every other aspect of the music fell apart, people would still want to hear it,” says the famed saxophonist, who, years ago, turned his back on the easy fame of leading “The Tonight Show” band to devote his time to exploring the present and possible future of jazz.

Marsalis, his quartet, and jazz vocal phenomenon Kurt Elling will appear in concert February 12 at the Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts. The concert is part of a tour promoting Marsalis's and Elling's Grammy-nominated album, “Upward Spiral.” The album was meant to point the way back to melody, Marsalis says.

“Modern jazz is not melodic. It has almost no melodies at all,” he asserts, and that's a mistake.

“People want good melody. Good melody and a good beat. That's why when you say the name 'Ravel,' people think of 'Bolero,'” and not any of his other music.”

Much of jazz evolved out of harmonic progressions, with soloists doing takes on the chords of a song, emphasizing the harmony over the melody, though the solo itself was the creation of a kind of melody. For “Upward Spiral,” Marsalis says he was looking for songs with melodic lines not generated from chord progressions, but able to stand on their own.

“This is not a case against harmony. But harmony's place in the food chain has been misplaced. It's secondary, not primary,” he says.

For a project emphasizing melody, Marsalis needed a singer. And the choice was easy:

“Kurt Elling is one of the few modern jazz singers whose background vocabulary is a jazz vocabulary,” compared with many jazz singers' pop and indie rock backgrounds.

“That gives us the possibility of making this a real quintet, instead of just a quartet with a singer out front.”

The integration of Elling's vocals into the fabric of the quartet, with its many layers of melody, is one of the great achievements of the album.

“A second thing Kurt has going to the ability to change the color of his voice to match the emotion of the song. That's a quality usually associated only with opera singers.”

The choice of songs centered on Marsalis' insistence on melody as the prime ingredient.

“When you talk about great composers and songwriters, there's only a handful a people who can come up with great melodies,” Marsalis says. “Sting comes to mind. Beethoven too.”

There's no Beethoven on “Upward Spiral,” but Sting is represented by “Practical Arrangement.” The songs go back to the 1930s, with Gershwin's “There's a Boat That's Leaving Soon for New York,” and on up to Sting and the rock singer-songwriter Chris Whitley's “From One Island to Another.”

From somewhere in between come most of the remainder. The '50s are especially well represented: “Blue Gardenia,” a jazz standard made popular in 1955 by Dinah Washington; “Blue Velvet,” a song introduced by Tony Bennett in 1951, but made wildly popular by Bobby Vinton a few years later; and “Doxy,” written for Miles Davis by jazz saxophonist Sonny Rollins in 1957.

There are a few surprises as well, especially “Momma Said,” which is not a song at all but a poem by Calvin Forbes, spoken instead of sung by Elling, backed by improvisation from Marsalis and his quartet, and completely lacking a melody, despite the album's stated theme. At the other end of things, Fred Hersch's “West Virginia Rose” is performed with everyone in unison, producing nothing but melody.

The songs' styles are all over the place, from the pop slickness of “Blue Velvet” to the smooth Brazilian samba of Antonio Carlos Jobim's “So Tinha De Ser Com Voce.” So, is the album really jazz? To answer that, Marsalis trips a variation on Duke Ellington's famous statement, “There are only two kinds of music – good music, and the other kind.”

“It's the same thing for every genre. The really good music doesn't sound like a genre. The style becomes irrelevant.”