Offbeat Review: Upward Spiral – Branford Marsalis Quartet with special guest Kurt Elling

From note one, this album sounds more like a Kurt Elling album backed by the Branford Marsalis Quartet than the other way around. Elling's voice kicks in immediately on the opening cut, Gershwin's “There's a Boat Dat's Leavin' Soon for New York.” Elling simply dominates the album; that comes as somewhat of a surprise considering the strength and reputation of saxophonist Branford Marsalis and his outstanding band with pianist Joey Calderazzo, bassist Eric Revis and drummer Justin Faulkner. Considering that Marsalis is the leader and the album is on his own label, Marsalis Music, it's curious how this juxtaposition came about.
Fans of Elling and jazz vocalists in general will probably be impressed to hear him perform in front of such a noble crew. He does some fine scatting on tenor great Sonny Rollins' “Doxy,” a good choice of material for this match. It's appreciated too that because of the format we hear the beauty of Marsalis' tenor on “Blue Gardenia,” a tune he might not have otherwise recorded.

There are also some dubious inclusions, like vocalists Tony Bennett's—and later Bobby Vinton's—hit “Blue Velvet.” A better choice was Carlos Jobim's “Só Tinha de Ser Com Você,” though Elling sounds a touch flat, with Marsalis's sax saving the day.

Recorded in New Orleans, Upward Spiral looms as a one-shot deal between this unlikely collaboration.