It is no secret that the Branford Marsalis Quartet can be as freewheeling off the bandstand as in performance. Saxophonist Marsalis, 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,” Marsalisadmits. “But we have serious musical debates as well.” One of these conversations led to Upward Spiral, the new album with special guest Kurt Elling that Marsalis Music is releasing 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 admits, “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 hardhitting band,” he confirms, “and I’ve spent so much time trying to be with excellent tenor players. From when I started in Chicago, working with Von Freeman, Eddie Johnson and Ed Petersen up to more recent gigs with Ernie Watts, Joel Frahm and Houston Person, I’ve made it a point to be comfortable around a great tenor sound. 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 date, he said 'Don’t worry, you’ve got the thing.’ So I brought 'the thing.’”