Music Review: Branford Marsalis Quartet with Special Guest Kurt Elling – Upward Spiral

As explained in the notes on the Branford Marsalis Quartet's album Upward Spiral (featuring Kurt Elling), this is truly a collaborative effort. Everything about the album, from the instrumental musicians' desire to work with a vocalist, to the choice of that vocalist — although when that choice is Kurt Elling what other choice is there — to the choice of material, is the result of “serious musical debate” creating what Marsalis calls “a true partnership.”
“I usually reject the word 'collaboration,'” Marsalis explains, “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.” The idea for the new album was to get together to do something different. “The goal here, even though he sings lyrics, was to highlight Kurt's voice as an instrument.” In effect, Upward Spiral was not intended to be just another vocalist fronting just another quartet.

Now while in any artistic endeavor there is often a great chasm between what was intended and what resulted, and in spite what is oft said of good intentions — the Marsalis-Elling intentions are plenty good, and the road they pave could well bridge over any chasm and end at an innovative musical heaven.

If there is any vocalist's voice that works like musical instrument, that voice belongs to Kurt Elling. Performance after performance he has made that abundantly clear. He plays his voice like Marsalis plays his sax. You put him together with an uncompromising set of musicians, a “hard hitting band” that treats him as an equal, and you've got a recipe for something out of the ordinary. On this album intentions are realized.

Whether the music combined with spoken word exploration of poet Calvin Forbes' “Momma Said,” or the haunting version of “Blue Gardenia,” it is clear that this is not business as usual. These guys are stretching. The album opens with a swinging romp through the classic from Porgy and Bess “There's a Boat Dat's Leavin' Soon For New York” that kind of sets the tone for what's to come. Chris Whitely's “From One Island to Another” gives everyone a shot at the spotlight ending with some dynamite soloing from Marsalis and Sting's “Practical Arrangement” gives them another newer piece to work on. And their work is impressive.

They rework the classic ballad “I'm a Fool to Want You” and bop their way happily through Sonny Rollins' “Doxy,” with some scat from Elling. Jobim's “Só Tinha de Ser Com Você” offers a change of pace. There is original music from Marsalis for “Cassandra Song” and pianist Joey Calderazzo for the album's final piece, “The Return (Upward Spiral).” Ellling supplies the lyrics. “West Virginia Rose” and “Blue Velvet” round out this very fine album.

Joining Marsalis and Calderazzo in the quartet are bassist Eric Revis and drummer Justin Faulkner.