Jun 30, 2016 02:13 PM EDT | Mike Greenblatt (firstname.lastname@example.org)
The more passionate fans of saxophonist Branford Marsalis might be disappointed with Upward Spiral (Marsalis Music/Okeh Records) because this could be construed as a Kurt Elling vocalese CD with the quartet merely backing him up. Elling achieves a strong Chet Baker nodding-out-on-heroin style on some great compositions, true, and Branford's solos are pretty damn amazing (one of today's greats) but still, the news of a new Branford was more exciting than actually listening to the new Branford.
The quartet itself is as strong as any working quartet out there. Pianist Joey Calderazzo is a 30-fingered monster plus bassist Eric Revis and drummer Justin Faulkner are one, almost the ultimate rhythm section. Then there's Branford. He can do no wrong (except give over an entire album to Elling).
Far be it from me to belabor a point but the goal here was to "highlight Kurt's voice as an instrument," according to the leader in the label's promotional materials. And, as on any Branford CD, there are some truly transcendent moments. Making Sting's "Practical Arrangement" into a 9:47 slow burn is one. That also goes for the wonderfully weird "Blue Velvet," yes, the song Tony Bennett took to #18 in 1951. The Clovers took it to #14 R'n'B in 1954 and Bobby Vinton made it the #1 song in America in 1963. Here, Elling whispers it so cool that you don't even know what song it is until midway through the first chorus, thus the shock of recognition is a great moment.
The highlight, though, has to be Antonio Carlos Jobim's "So Tinha de Ser Com Voce" samba. Elling's affected vocal in Portuguese is all pinched consonants like trying to say "Kris Kristofferson" five times fast.
"Doxy" is the Sonny Rollins vehicle with added Mark Murphy lyrics. "West Virginia Rose" is a fine choice that Elling brought to the session as was "Momma Said," taken from a Calvin Forbes poem that the band vamped on spontaneously in the studio. With artists of this stature, magic could, indeed, be made on the fly.
When Sinatra co-wrote and first recorded "I'm a Fool to Want You," lonely men yearned and women lost their hearts. It's since been recorded by Billie Holiday, Elvis Costello, Sammy Davis, Jr., Bob Dylan, Tom Jones, Peggy Lee and Dinah Washington (among others). Here, it's an absolutely gorgeous tenor sax/vocal duet that will make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up.
P.S. Repeated listenings bear strange fruit: strange only because the more you play this, the more you like it. Maybe I'm changing my mind during the course of writing this: that's a first.
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