Branford Marsalis (featuring Kurt Elling) - 2016
Branford Marsalis has long been a fixture on my top ten lists, with his work being almost a shoo-in for #1 album of the year. His holding the top spot not being the case this year, one would naturally assume it’s because he’s sharing the spotlight with jazz vocalist, Kurt Elling. That assumption, however, couldn’t be further from the truth. The lower status of this Marsalis masterpiece is in fact because of the saxophonist himself. Whereas the rest of the quartet (the ever mind-blowing Joey Calderazzo on piano, Eric Revis on bass, and the best substitute you could get for Jeff “Tain” Watts - Justin Faulkner on drums) is consistently comfortable in backing Elling, knowing when to release their jazz chops in furry - it is Branford whose playing underwhelms throughout, and at times, greatly. It seems he decided that as he is not the marquee man, he should sacrifice and restrain himself from being the prolific player he usually is. A perfect example of this comes on the cover of Sting’s, “Practical Arrangement.” The loose arrangement and performance of it, save Branford, is exquisite, with the rhythm section and Elling absolutely nailing the fluctuations of the track. Unfortunately, Branford sounds like a high school saxophonist that stumbled into the wrong recording studio, with no-one paying much mind to him, as he must be trying a minimalist approach to playing (anything worth while).
Fortunately, with Branford floundering, Kurt Elling is divine. His voice is perfectly aligned to the tone and feel of each song, and it is his performance that really drove this album into the top ten. As soon as the opening bars of, “There’s a Boat Dat’s Leavin’ Soon for New York” kick off, you know there’s something special in the air in regards to Elling’s treatment of the uptempo, standard. With all the flaws spoken of in Branford’s playing, his duet with Elling on, “I’m a Fool to Want You” is sensationally sexy, making it a highlight of the album. The band’s attempt at the free-form, “Momma Said” never really takes off (understandable given the three minutes it is given to play out), but it again allows Elling to wear the different hat of a spoken-word master. Elling barely gets an invite in to “Cassandra Song,” with the band maybe tiring of playing second fiddle to the vocalist. Without the standout performer, however, the song proves to be the lowpoint in the album. Fortunately, it is made forgettable when the next track, the incredible “Blue Velvet” begins, and once again, Elling takes over the helm of the previously sinking ship.
Much on this album is truly the best of what Jazz had to offer this year, and had it not been stamped as a Branford Marsalis album, I could have thought of it in an even more so positive light. With that Marsalis name however, comes great expectations, which four out of the five guys mostly live up to. Still, a brilliant album, even if oft minus the usual brilliance of Branford.
Andrew Scott ranks this as the
#5 favorite album of 2016