It is no secret that the Branford Marsalis Quartet can be as freewheeling off the bandstand as in performance. Saxophonist Marsalis, and his Quartet made up of pianist Joey Calderazzo, bassist Eric Revis and drummer Justin Faulkner are each bold personalities with strong opinions, equally intense in both musical and verbal exchanges. "The band talks about all kinds of things, many of which are unprintable," Marsalis admits. "But we have serious musical debates as well." One of these exchanges led to Upward Spiral, the new album from the Branford Marsalis Quartet with special guest Kurt Elling. The album will be released via Marsalis Music via OKeh Records on June 10, 2016.
"One topic we got into was picking the best singer to work with our band," Marsalis recalls. "My candidate was Kurt Elling, because he has the most flexible voice around, is always in tune and is a true jazz musician. When I met Kurt two years ago at a Thelonious Monk Institute competition, we had a conversation at the bar about doing a record together."
“I had bumped into Branford on the road a handful of times, and we always had significant conversations," Elling adds. "So when he mentioned making a record, I said 'any time!'"
What has emerged, after an intense week of performance and recording in New Orleans, is a collection that blends Songbook staples, jazz standards, and standards-to-be from a diverse array of composers.
The goal from the outset was to create 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. But this time, none of us were going to do what we normally do. The goal here, even though he sings lyrics, was to highlight Kurt's voice as an instrument."
Elling was more than prepared for the challenge. "I love singing with a hard-hitting band," he confirms. "I didn't want Branford's band to feel that it had to hold back because a singer was there. To be welcomed into the Quartet's circle, which is all about new challenges and hard blowing, was very important to me. When I asked Branford what to bring about a week before the date, he said `Don't worry, you've got the thing.' So I brought `the thing.'"
Choosing songs became a process in which all five musicians had input. "Everyone in the band is always listening to all kinds of music," Marsalis emphasizes, "so it's not as if we had to go out and do research on vocal records.
"For example, I had been listening to the Oscar Brown song `Long as You're Living' for two years before the date. The first time I heard Sting's `Practical Arrangement,' I called him and asked for a lead sheet, because I wanted to play that song with the quartet even before the idea of recording with Kurt came up. I also chose `Só Tinha de Ser Com Você,' a Jobim song that has not been done to death. I told everyone to study Elis Regina's version, because I wanted us to sound authentic rather than generic. Doing `Blue Gardenia' was my idea, while Eric originally suggested Chris Whitley's `From One Island' when we were talking about more recent songs.
Elling also brought ideas and songs to the partnership. He suggested "Doxy," the Sonny Rollins classic with lyrics that Mark Murphy introduced; "West Virginia Rose," with music and lyrics by pianist Fred Hersch; and "Momma Said," with the quartet responding spontaneously in the studio to the Calvin Forbes poem.
Two classic ballad performances complete the collection. "Kurt had wanted to do `Blue Velvet,' using Bobby Vinton's hit version as a starting point," Marsalis recalls. "I said that I'd write it out, but Kurt said, `No, I want us to sound like ghosts, with just enough technique to get the message across.' He also wanted to do a voice/tenor duet, which I was originally against, but we tried `I'm a Fool to Want You' and he was right. When you have a singer who can inhabit the emotional space, it works."
Every track on Upward Spiral confirms the beyond-category strengths of both the Quartet and Elling. "No one in the band had to make adjustments, because good musicians can play many styles of music," Marsalis notes. "We're fully engaged with one another when we're playing, so it was easy to engage with Kurt. The only adjustment was not to play long solos, but if making the music sound good means playing less, you play less."
Elling adds that "My thing is always about tailoring what I do to the vision and personality of the band, and Branford's quartet is a real working band, which is both an incredible luxury and incredibly important for the music. They provided everything on a silver platter."
For Marsalis, Upward Spiral is consistent with all of his previous music. "My philosophy of jazz is that it should be about strong melodies and a great beat, and every song here has a melody that you can hold in your mind, that you can sing. This is not jazz as a personal think tank, where people are only concerned with impressing everyone already inside of the tank with deconstruction and reharmonization. This is the kind of music that should expand our base to include people who would like jazz if it were friendlier. From the minute Kurt started performing with us, it was all good."
Branford Marsalis has stayed the course. From his early acclaim as a saxophonist bringing new energy and new audiences to the jazz art, he has refined and expanded his talents and his horizons as a musician, composer, bandleader and educator – a 21st Century mainstay of artistic excellence.
Growing up in the rich environment of New Orleans as the oldest son of pianist and educator Ellis Marsalis, Branford was drawn to music along with siblings Wynton, Delfeayo and Jason. His first instrument, the clarinet, gave way to the alto and then the tenor and soprano saxophones when the teenage Branford began working in local bands. A growing fascination with jazz as he entered college gave him the basic tools to obtain his first major jobs, with trumpet legend Clark Terry and alongside Wynton in Art Blakey’s legendary Jazz Messengers. When the brothers left to form the Wynton Marsalis Quintet, the world of uncompromising acoustic jazz was invigorated. Branford formed his own quartet in 1986 and, with a few minor interruptions in the early years, has sustained the unit as his primary means of expression. Known for the telepathic communication among its uncommonly consistent personnel, its deep book of original music replete with expressive melodies and provocative forms, and an unrivaled spirit in both live and recorded performances, the Branford Marsalis Quartet has long been recognized as the standard to which other ensembles of its kind must be measured. Its most recent recording, Four MFs Playin’ Tunes, was named Best Instrumental Jazz Album in 2012 by iTunes.
Branford has not confined his music to the quartet context. In addition to guest turns with a legion of giants including Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Herbie Hancock and Sonny Rollins, he has excelled in duets with several major pianists, including his boyhood friend Harry Connick, Jr. and the longtime pianist in his quartet, Joey Calderazzo. Branford’s first solo concert, at San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral, is documented on his latest recording, In My Solitude. Branford formed the Marsalis Music label in 2002, and under his direction it has documented his own music, talented new stars such as Miguel Zenón, and neglected older masters including one of Branford’s teachers, the late Alvin Batiste. Branford has also shared his knowledge as an educator, forming extended teaching relationships at Michigan State, San Francisco State and North Carolina Central Universities and conducting workshops at sites throughout the United States and the world.
Classical music inhabits a growing portion of Branford’s musical universe. With a repertoire including works by Copland, Debussy, Glazunov, Ibert, Mahler, Milhaud, Rorem, Vaughn Williams, Villa‐Lobos and Sally Beamish (who reconceived a work in progress, “Under the Wing of the Rock,” to feature Branford’s saxophone after hearing him perform one of her earlier pieces), Branford is frequently heard with leading symphony orchestras including those in Chicago, Detroit, Dusseldorf and North Carolina as well as the New York Philharmonic. He also served as Creative Director for the Cincinnati Symphony’s Ascent series in 2012‐13.
Broadway has also welcomed Branford’s contributions. His initial effort, original music for a revival of August Wilson’s Fences, garnered a Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Music in a Play and a Tony nomination for Best Original Score Written for the Theater. Branford also provided music for The Mountaintop, starring Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Bassett, and served as musical curator for the 2014 revival of A Raisin in the Sun. Branford’s screen credits include the original music for Mo’ Better Blues and acting roles in School Daze and Throw Momma from the Train.
As for other public stages, Branford spent a period touring with Sting, collaborated with the Grateful Dead and Bruce Hornsby, served as Musical Director of The Tonight Show Starring Jay Leno and hosted National Public Radio’s widely syndicated Jazz Set. The range and quality of these diverse activities established Branford as a familiar presence beyond the worlds of jazz and classical music, while his efforts to help heal and rebuild New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina mark him as an artist with an uncommonly effective social vision. Together with Harry Connick, Jr. and New Orleans Habitat for Humanity, Branford conceived and helped to realize The Musicians Village, a community in the Upper Ninth Ward that provides homes to the displaced families of musicians and other local residents. At the heart of The Musicians Village stands the Ellis Marsalis Center for Music, a community center dedicated to preserving the rich New Orleans musical legacy containing state‐of‐the art spaces for performance, instruction and recording.
Some might gauge Branford Marsalis’s success by his numerous awards, including three GRAMMY® awards and, (together with his father and brothers), his citation as a Jazz Master by the National Endowment for the Arts. To Branford, however, these are only way stations along what continues to be one of the most fascinating and rewarding journeys in the world of music.
GRAMMY winner Kurt Elling is among the world's foremost jazz vocalists. He has won every DownBeat Critics Poll for the last 14 years and has been named "Male Singer of the Year" by the Jazz Journalists Association on eight occasions. An international jazz award winner, he has also been GRAMMY-nominated a dozen times.
Elling's rich baritone spans four octaves and features both astonishing technical mastery and emotional depth. His repertoire includes original compositions and modern interpretations of standards, all of which are springboards for inspired improvisation, scatting, spoken word, and poetry.
The New York Times declared, "Elling is the standout male vocalist of our time." The Washington Post added, "Since the mid-1990s, no singer in jazz has been as daring, dynamic or interesting as Kurt Elling. With his soaring vocal flights, his edgy lyrics and sense of being on a musical mission, he has come to embody the creative spirit in jazz."
Elling was the Artist-in-Residence for the Singapore and Monterey jazz festivals. He has also written multi-disciplinary works for the Steppenwolf Theatre and the City of Chicago. The Obama Administration's first state dinner featured Elling in a command performance.
Elling is a renowned artist of vocalese—the writing and performing of words over recorded improvised jazz solos. The natural heir to jazz pioneers Eddie Jefferson, King Pleasure and Jon Hendricks, Elling has set his own lyrics to the improvised solos of Wayne Shorter, Keith Jarrett and Pat Metheny. He often incorporates images and references from writers such as Rilke, Rumi, Neruda and Proust into his work. The late poet and Bollingen Prize winner Robert Creeley wrote, "Kurt Elling takes us into a world of sacred particulars. His words are informed by a powerful poetic spirit." Said Robert Pinsky, former Poet Laureate of the United States, "In Kurt Elling's art, the voice of jazz gives a new spiritual presence to the ancient, sweet and powerful bond between poetry and music."
Kurt Elling has toured vigorously throughout his career, thrilling audiences throughout the world. In that time he has led his own ensemble and has collaborated with many of the world's finest orchestras.
Passion World, Kurt Elling's latest recording, culminates nearly five years of collecting and honing songs – and in some cases writing new lyrics – that express love, romance and heartbreak around the world. Throughout his travels, Elling has observed how deeply-felt passions are shaped in countless ways be each unique culture. Those insights hve guided the creation of Passion World, a tour-de-force project that is vibrant with diversity, celebrating what makes us all human. In concert Elling tells rich stories about exotic places, cultures and times. Passion World is a musical magic carpet taking you on a fascinating journey through the realms of romance.