Branford Marsalis Quartet with Kurt Elling: Amazing

Photo by Palma Kolansky

I was lucky to attend one of the best concerts I’ve ever seen last Saturday night at UCLA’s Center for the Art of Performance (CAP) at Royce Hall, which has always been a great place to hear jazz, or for that matter, any kind of music. With a nice proscenium stage, good acoustics and sound system, and an 1,800-person capacity with good sight-lines, the venue is simply terrific.

The mind-blowing concert this past Saturday night featured the Branford Marsalis Quartet with Kurt Elling as the special guest on vocals. Branford’s band included longtime piano bandmate Joey Calderazzo, bassist Eric Revis, and drummer Justin Faulkner. Marsalis, who used to frequently drop by the station during my tenure hosting Morning Becomes Eclectic, was of course on saxophone. And Kurt Elling is a renowned and versatile jazz vocalist, with a baritone that spans four octaves. The group has been on tour to promote their first collaborative album, Upward Spiral, and the set consisted of many tracks from the Grammy-nominated record.

The quartet started out with an intense song called “The Mighty Sword,” which was so powerful that I thought my head was going to explode. It echoed performances like Coltrane’s album Live at Birdland and the song “Afro-Blue.” Calderazzo channeled McCoy Tyner, and Faulkner Elvin Jones. It was a helluva smokin’ way to start a show.

Photo by Eric Ryan Anderson

Kurt Elling—who once did over 20 nonstop shows in both New York City and L.A. over a three week period in each city—then joined the ensemble on stage, singing the Gershwin classic “There’s a Boat Dat’s Leavin’ Soon for New York” followed by the love song “Blue Gardenia.” Kurt Elling has always been a strong singer with a big enough voice to be able to work with a band as tight-knit and hard-hitting as this one. Marsalis wanted to work with Elling “because he has the most flexible voice around, is always in tune and is a true jazz musician.”

I admit having had a hard time understanding the next song called “Só Tinha de Ser Com Você,” a Brazilian composition by Jobim and previously covered by Elis Regina, Vanessa da Mata, and many others. Brazilian Portuguese is a beautiful language, however, it’s not easy to speak let alone sing. But I loved their version of an old Abbey Lincoln song from her Riverside album Abbey is Blue called “Long as You’re Living,” with Elling performing a nice vocalese on the melody.

The next song, Sting’s “Practical Arrangement,” is a love song describing complicated emotions, sometimes uncomfortable ones at that. (Remember that Branford was part of Sting’s Blue Turtle jazz band 30 years ago.) The group’s interpretation of this song was so full of emotion and intensity that you could have heard a pin drop in Royce Hall during the number. The show concluded with the New Orleans classic “Saint James Infirmary,” a song that Branford Marsalis knows well as the whole Marsalis musical clan hails from New Orleans.

I was blown away by the telepathic interplay of the band. Marsalis and Joey Calderazzo were so spot-on together, Eric Revis had a big, beautiful sound on the upright bass, and Justin Faulkner’s powerful drumming recalled Elvin Jones of the famous Coltrane Quartet.

I’ll repeat — it was one of the best shows I have ever seen. If you missed the show in Los Angeles, check out the band’s new album Upward Spiral. You will not be disappointed. Or, if you’re from out of town, you can still catch them on tour in the U.S. or abroad. Upcoming cities on the tour include Seattle, Miami, Detroit, Chicago, several cities in Germany and more.

Here’s the band performing at a small jazz club in London in 2014. The video is shaky, but the band sure isn’t. Watch for Joey Calderazzo’s solo.

And, finally, my thanks to UCLA CAP’s Holly Wallace for the set list and photos.

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