Upward Spiral: Collaboration in the truest sense

These days democracy in jazz singing is vanishingly rare. On record a star singer will sublimate the band to mere accompaniment. Conversely a star instrumentalist might submit to one or two guest vocal spots to placate the PR. Yet here we have a truly symbiotic meeting with the singer Kurt Elling meshing effortlessly with the quartet of his fellow American, the saxophonist Branford Marsalis.
One suspects it was easy for Elling, who sings more like a horn player who has learnt the lyrics than a singing actor in the Sinatra mode. Marsalis, however, is a forthright reeds man who, in reining himself in, has surely taken the more difficult path. The result is a lot like John Coltrane's famous disc with Johnny Hartman, where an undercurrent of tension was created by the sense of fettered power.

That's apparent in Practical Arrangement, a stealthy piece of faux-Sondheim that picks its way around a proposal as if it were a break-up. Its falteringly vulnerable lyrics (by Sting, an employer of Marsalis in the 1980s) are tailor-made for Elling's halting way with a ballad, and the saxophonist responds with a sorrowful solo. The next track, a skittish scat version of Sonny Rollins's Doxy, lets the light back in.

There is the odd bit of post-bop fury. From One Island to Another, a ballad by the blues guitarist Chris Whitley, has two tempestuous interludes in which Marsalis and his pianist, Joey Calderazzo, blast questingly over Justin Faulkner's clamorous drums. Só Tinha de Ser Com Você is gentle Jobim but Marsalis nevertheless beefs up the bossa with an obbligato that's like Stan Getz on steroids.

Ultimately it's the standards that stand out. Blue Velvet is louche and Lynchian with a nail-biting vocal, fractured sax, Twilight Zone piano and Eric Revis's stalking bass. In Blue Gardenia new lyrical depths unfold like petals. I'm a Fool to Want You is an ingenious voice-and-sax duet in which Marsalis dogs Elling's 12 o'clock vocal like a shadow. It's collaboration in the truest sense, as is the whole album.

Four stars: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆