Upward Spiral concert review: Anything but standard

Grammy-award winner Branford Marsalis and his Branford Marsalis Quintet were originally scheduled to appear at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts back in May, but due to flight difficulties, this performance was rescheduled to July 31st. The audience was still packed, and the excitement level high. This tour is a result of the Quartet's 2016 collaboration with another Grammy winner, vocalist Kurt Elling, on the album Upward Spiral, a stellar recording that brings together two of the best genre-blending jazz performers today.
The Quartet had its usual players – powerhouse pianist Joey Calderazzo and commanding drummer Justin Faulkner, and joining for this concert was bassist Russell Hall, who at a young age has already established himself as one of the best first-call sidemen in New York, and who regularly tours with both Branford and Wynton Marsalis.

They jumped right in, bursting into the familiar favorite “The Mighty Sword,” a chart written by pianist Joey Calderazzo. This was a fast, energetic beginning to a night that would leave the audience begging for more, and it felt like an evolution of the Free Jazz masters of the past. The band jammed through this off-kilter chart, deconstructing it, and reassembling into a fun swing under acrobatic solos from Branford on soprano sax and Calderazzo on piano.

Kurt Elling took the stage with “There's a Boat Dat's Leavin' Soon for New York,” the opening track from 2016's Upward Spiral. This is not Marsalis' first collaboration with a vocalist: as he began to branch out into his genre-defying sound in the 1980's, he created memorable works with artists like Sting and Phil Collins. But this latest collaboration with Kurt Elling really gives both performers a chance to push themselves even further, as they take the old and make it new and exciting again, while introducing audience members to everything from Gershwin to Free Jazz.

One of the best things about watching any version of the Branford Marsalis Quartet perform is how much fun the musicians have performing together; audiences immediately soak up the joy from the stage. Banter abounds, as Marsalis joked about the delayed show (“I'm glad we could finally make it!”) while giving Elling a hard time on his Portuguese pronunciations, telling him “That's the rub” as Elling quickly shot back “Well this is Kansas City, there is plenty of rub!” All the while, Marsalis was skillfully the “puppetmaster” on stage, a whisper to bassist Hall, a look to pianist Calderazzo, driving the ensemble to new destinations.

The evening continued with “Blue Gardenia,” a gorgeous, intimate ballad, followed by a fun Jobim bossa-nova titled “Só Tinha De Ser Com Você,” which gave Elling a chance to explore the lower register of his impressive range. One of the best solos of the night came during “From One Island to Another,” a more polished version of the original blues-influenced recording by Chris Whitley. In this chart, the bass and drums dug in as Calderazzo built an electrifying solo off of the simple rhythm of the chorus. A calm return of the vocals, then Marsalis took over the solo space with a post-Coltrane dexterity, fingers flying as the intense number built to a close.

Things opened up with “Momma Said,” a free jazz exploration underneath a poem written by Calvin Forbes, as the musicians spontaneously responded to the words spoken by Kurt Elling. “Long as You're Living,” a bonus track on Upward Spiral, gave Elling an opportunity to take on a more angular, bop sound, and his nimble scat solo was pushed further and further by Calderazzo, before an breathtakingly lyrical solo from drummer Justin Faulkner.

The entire evening had a very intimate feel about it, as if the audience was peeking in on an after-hours jazz jam, each musician pushing each other musically to exciting places. The mournful ballad “Practical Arrangement” started with a slow, deliberate solo tenor saxophone, and you could have heard a pin drop in the hall; Marsalis held the audience in the palm of his expert hands. His breathy, emotional sound made everyone remember every heartache ever experienced. As Marsalis handed the solo space off to Calderazzo, the crowd did not applaud, as no one wanted to be taken away from the magical moment.

A fitting end was the title track of the album, “The Return (Upward Spiral).” This lighthearted and uplifting chart, with lyrics written by Elling and music by Calderazzo, winds up and down, then all hell breaks loose before winding back down again with a smooth finish, showing the interaction between all five musicians and their abilities to not only listen to each other, but push each other as well. What seems unpredictable to the audience never catches the musicians by surprise as they come back and lock in with each change effortlessly.

After a standing ovation, Marsalis and Elling came back out for an encore performance with “I'm a Fool to Want You,” channeling their best Billie Holliday, while making the chart all their own. One major disappointment was the amount of audience members that left before this encore even started. Not only a distraction to those of us still in our seats, but rude to the performers on stage as well, especially after a performance of this caliber. A second standing ovation followed from those that remained, and bassist Russell Hall slinked back out on stage, playing a provocative solo that grew faster and faster, bringing everyone back on stage for one last encore, this time with Elling doing his best plunger mute-trombone impression on a paper cup, a whimsical goodbye to the friends both on-stage and in-house.