Review: Branford Marsalis Quartet with special guest Kurt Elling at Jazz at Lincoln Center

Kurt Elling is a walking jazz machine who's utterly in command of his many talents, and who dispenses them with complete ease on the stage. This award-winning, much-lauded singer has recently been collaborating with the Branford Marsalis Quartet, fusing his style to their hard bop approach to music-making.
The first number of the set, “The Mighty Sword” (Joey Calderazzo), showcased the virtuosic talents of piano man Calderazzo, bassist Eric Revis, drummer Justin Faulner and Marsalis, who switches easily between soprano and tenor saxophones. Elling participated thereafter, and with his first number, “There's a Boat Dat's Leavin' Soon for New York” (George and Ira Gershwin), immediately revealed his talent for scat, vocalese and improvising his own lyrics.

Switching to a ballad, the standard, “Blue Gardenia” (Bob Russell/Lester Lee), he demonstrated his versatility and smooth baritone, which spans a four-octave range. The snippets of call-and-response between Elling and Marsalis infused the piece with a primal underpinning – a basic technique – that never fails to enhance and give texture to a number.

As a young man, Elling sang in choirs, especially in the classical style, mastering madrigals and counterpoint from Bach motets; he was also trained on violin, French horn, piano and drums. This musical heritage informs his style of creative vocal flights as well as clipped diction, as on “Só Tinha de Ser Com Você” (Antonio Carlos Jobim), which he sang with perfect breath control, in Portuguese, to a jazzed-up bossa/calypso beat. His phrasing and modern jazz sensibility was also especially evident in “From One Island to Another” (Chris Whitley), which featured extended band play.

Another component of his prowess is his ability to combine technical proficiency with feeling and emotive storytelling, as in ballads such as “A Practical Arrangement” (Gordon Sumner, aka Sting). In “I'm a Fool to Want You” (Frank Sinatra/Jack Wolf/Joel Herron). Elling, accompanied solely by Marsalis, sang in both pleasing harmony and dynamic counterpoint to the tenor sax. Closing out this evening of pure jazz was “St. James Infirmary Blues” in an updated New Orleans blues style. Elling scatted and made music with an improvised “mouth organ” – a drinking glass – proving the singer not only possesses an extraordinary vocal instrument, but occasionally becomes the instrument.