Vocalist Kurt Elling paired beautifully with Branford Marsalis and his quartet last Friday night for Symphony Center Presents Jazz Series’ first event of 2017.
Their musical dovetail began with a nod to Chicago. Marsalis noted that he followed the Cubs’ final World Series game while on tour last summer in Canada. First the Cubs led the Indians 4-1, recounted Marsalis. When the Indians later tied the game, the saxophonist joined the terror of Cub fans everywhere that the team might continue its 108-year losing streak. But Marsalis’ little anecdote ended, of course, with the Cubs’ glorious 10th inning surge to victory.
The sold-out Orchestra Hall audience roared in delight. That delight continued when Chicago-born Elling took the mic and celebrated his hometown, even in the throes of its very gray winter. He reassured the crowd of his local bona fides with references to honing his craft at the Green Mill and dining at Gene and Georgetti steakhouse.
Smooth MARSALIS QUARTET and ELLING interplay
The two hours of music that followed proves how very much at home Marsalis and Elling are on stage together even though their collaboration is relatively new. Marsalis’ longtime quartet – Joey Calderazzo on piano, Eric Revis on bass and Justin Faulkner on drums – is notably relaxed and intuitive. They blend in, they step aside, they echo, they listen, they create a variegated unit of musical peers.
Thanks to playing with his older brother Wynton, Marsalis has said that he learned early in his career to be a good “follower.” His gift for following must factor into his leadership of the quartet and its smooth interplay with Elling. The musicians welcomed their guest artist like a treasured old friend. Elling, who can sometimes give in to showboating tendencies, was subdued and respectful throughout the program. All five artists treated each other with generosity from start to finish.
From lounge act to less traditional at Symphony Center
Elling and Marsalis did several jazz standards from their 2016 album UPWARD SPIRAL, starting with Gershwin’s “There’s a Boat Dat’s Leavin’ Soon for New York” from PORGY AND BESS. Other UPWARD SPIRAL selections included “Blue Gardenia” and “Doxy” which gave Elling a chance for some delicious scatting.
Elling thanked the audience “for letting me come home every once and awhile” before he and Marsalis left “the lounge act stuff” behind and ventured into less traditional territory. Especially moving was Elling’s heartfelt rendition of “Practical Arrangement” from Sting’s The Last Ship. Elling brought some of the audience to tears when he sang “It may not be the romance you had in mind/But you could learn to love me.”
Elling took care of his audience by following that delicate ballad with an upbeat and hopeful number. Fearlessly stretching his skill set, he later picked up a water glass and created a “wah-wahing” sound that vocally approximated a brass instrument. The quirky interlude didn’t put Marsalis, Calderazzo, Revis and Faulkner off. They stayed right with Elling, having fun among themselves and giving Chicagoans a brief break from their town’s winter gloom.
About the Author
Susan Lieberman is a playwright, journalist and script consultant who commits most of her waking hours to Chicago theatre. Her Jeff-winning play Arrangement for Two Violas will be published by Chicago Dramaworks in spring 2017.