Elling, Branford Prove Perfect Partners in Chicago

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Branford Marsalis (left) and Kurt Elling pose for a photo at the Chicago Symphony Center, where they performed with Marsalis’ quartet on Jan. 27.

(Photo: Michael Jackson)

Chicago Symphony Center patrons responded to the surprise match-up of the Branford Marsalis Quartet and Kurt Elling by packing the house Jan. 27. The executive line-up was touring in support of their Grammy nominated album, Upward Spiral (Marsalis Music/Okeh), recorded in New Orleans in December 2015 after a weekend run at Snug Harbor.

Since Marsalis’ long-running quartet rarely collaborates with guests, a vocal album was unexpected and, as is typical with Elling-influenced projects, the material proved wide ranging and unpredictable. Pianist Joey Calderazzo, bassist Eric Revis and drum tyro Justin Faulkner emerged first onstage with Marsalis displaying his default insouciance, teasing Calderazzo as he made an initial run on the keys with “Aah, the bebop scale!”

They then dug deep into an uncompromising instrumental before former Chicagoan Elling, resplendent in brown pinstriped suit, entered stage left to warm applause from his home crowd. Elling remained onstage for the rest of the two-hour show, functioning as far more than token vocalist, very much a gear in the machine of the band. On the outro to the swaggering throwback of “There’s A Boat Dat’s Leavin’ Soon For New York” Elling translated Manhattan locations to Chicago, seducing his imaginary date with a trip to the Green Mill or the Hyde Park Jazz Festival just as Marsalis, a baseball fan, earlier flirted with the audience, congratulating the Cubs’ on their world series win.

Despite the mirth—Calderazzo and Marsalis cut a duo album Songs Of Mirth And Melancholy in 201—melancholy was to the fore, notably in a porcelain reading of Sting’s imploring “Practical Arrangement” which recalled Marsalis’ tenure in the British superstar’s band. (The song dates from Sting and Rob Mathes’ 2013 collaboration on the fine—though misunderstood—allegorical musical The Last Ship.)

Introduced plaintively by Marsalis’ tenor saxophone and shadowed by subtle Bill Evans-esque shadings from Calderazzo, Elling delivered the desolate request from a lonely suitor (in the musical it is sung as a duet with opposing lyrics) with the kind of breath control Sting could only wish to muster.

“Blue Gardenia,” made famous by one-time Chicagoans Nat “King” Cole and Dina Washington, but seldom heard latterly, was another unusual ballad choice, and it preceded Elling’s convincing performance of Jobim’s “Só Tinha De Ser Com Vocé” in Portuguese. The melody became stagnant in Elling’s low range but perked into almost Eddie Harris-like funk with Marsalis’ tenor honking lean unisons and counterpoint.

Absent from the set was one of the more enigmatic tracks from Upward Spiral, a curious, appropriately noir-ish reading of “Blue Velvet.” But Elling had confessed earlier that “the lounge act is over.” It was clear that musicianship was the order of the night and Marsalis recently confided in the U.K.’s Jazz Journal that he doesn’t pay attention to lyrics: “A lot of old jazz guys say you can’t play a song well unless you know the lyrics. Well that would invalidate 700 years of classical music. If it’s a good song, the melody dictates your sound.” 

Marsalis’ classical ambitions coincide with his natural jazz sensibility (he will perform Fauré and John Williams pieces with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in June) and his own breath and dynamic control plus consistent use of classical ornamentations hinted at this other side to his artistry.

In an interview on WBEZ’s Morning Shift he mentioned that he learned to follow leading parts when he sang “160 Bach chorales” with younger brother Wynton, who he always let take the top line. With his customary pragmatism, confidence and self-awareness, Marsalis made the point that a saxophone competing with the trumpet ruins “sonic cohesiveness,” and that the same stood for vocalists: “It’s the singer first and you as support.”

Marsalis practiced what he preached at Symphony Center, keeping lines symmetrical or tastefully asymmetrical behind Elling, never overplaying while remaining preponderantly diatonic and melodically relevant. During the expressionistic extract from Calvin Forbes’ cautionary poem “Momma Said,” Elling delivered the line: “I can still taste it like it was…” as Marsalis fulfilled the phrase with a wryly turned snatch of McCartney’s “Yesterday.”

An abundance of mutual wit bubbled between the saxophonist and the singer and when they weren’t spiraling drolly or dirge-like around each other, the rhythm section amped the energy, particularly during an extended exchange between Calderazzo and Faulkner. 

Elling’s sometime stage mate, pianist Fred Hersch, was represented with the song Hersch wrote for his mother, “West Virginia Rose.” Though hardly a crowd pleaser in this context, it was consistent with the prevailing wistful chamber aesthetic. To rouse the crowd, instead of his vocalese “Doxy” from the CD, Elling kicked into one of his signature barnstormers, Oscar Brown’s existential “Long As You’re Living,” made famous by Abbey Lincoln on her 1959 classic Abbey Is Blue.

For an encore, the upward spiral took a dip again with the torch song to end all torch songs, “I’m A Fool To Want You,” part penned by Frank Sinatra amid his triste travails chasing Ava Gardner. This was a beautifully poised duet between sighing tenor, reminiscent of Ben Webster at moments, and pining vocals.

Revis then embarked on a mahogany intro, despite distractions from giggly bandmates (more mirth), to that quintessentially paradoxical New Orleans anthem “St James Infirmary,” a grimly upbeat celebration of mortality. 

Elling cupped his hands around a glass jar close to the mic, mimicking tailgate trombone as Marsalis’ soprano channeled Sidney Bechet, while Calderazzo, Revis and Faulkner cut loose for a tragicomic two-step send-off to this healthy, bittersweet slice of considered, somewhat classicized jazz. DB