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Kurt Elling/Bill Charlap Live, Albany, N.Y.

R.J. DeLuke By

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'Darn That Dream' showed Elling's supple baritone voice on the bittersweet ballad, playing it like Dexter might have...
Kurt Elling with the Lawrence Hobgood Trio and the Bill Charlap Trio
The Egg
Albany, New York
April 21, 2007

Kurt Elling is arguably the premier jazz singer on the scene today. Jazz musician may be a better label, since he's so much more than someone who steps in front of a microphone and provides vocals. No boy jazz singer, he.

He's released his first CD in four years (all of the others garnering Grammy nominations), and one of the stops on his supporting tour brought him to Albany, N.Y., and the Egg on April 21. the extraordinary night of music also featured the exquisite Bill Charlap Trio, which continues to show that music played with a sense of good taste, even elegance, can endure. All told, a fine night for this superb venue for the arts in the Capital District region of new York state.

Elling says his Nightmoves on Concord, a label that's a switch from his long tenure at Blue Note, is about a mysterious, revelatory moment that occurs between sunset and dawn, a bewitching time for life, love and things in between. It's a great disk, that could garner him that elusive Grammy less than a year from now. And as always, his transplantation of the music from recording studio to live performance was remarkable. Like most great jazz, the music lived and breathed in performance. That was in no small part also due to Elling's superb comrades—collaborator/pianist Laurence Hobgood, bassist Rob Amster and drummer Willie Jones III.

Elling started with a song that has become one of his chestnuts, "Beware My Foolish Heart. From the start, his strong baritone moved the music, his timing perfect, his phrasing adventurous. In the past, he's inserted a mid-way segue where he intones words based on philosophical thoughts of St. John of the Cross, a 16th century Christian mystic. But this time it was more Elling poetry, linked not to the cross but the moon. Still mysterious and yet melodic. And exploding back into the main theme just as climatic and hip.

Much of the rest of the evening came from Nightmoves. His version of "Body and Soul, like his highly admired "Tanya" (The Messenger, Blue Note, 1997) is based on a Dexter Gordon improvisation, but with Elling supplying the lyric, hip yet with the unique imagery he has been known to conjure up from his heart and head. The words, he said, were inspired by his 18-month-old daughter, Luiza. He also sang a Jobim tune he said he encountered on his travels and which entranced him with its beauty. With "Luiza, named after his child, Elling showed how he can also conflate the roles of singer and actor, whatever it takes to squeeze out the meaning and emotion of a ballad. He sang a verse in English before reverting to Portuguese.

Other tune selections in the set were similarly inspired. "And We Will Fly" is an interpretation of music by pianist Alan Pasqua in which Elling tones down the volume and caresses the melody more than the instrumental original, while still maintaining dexterity of phrasing. He can juggle eggs as well as break glass when necessary. "The Waking had the singer putting a poem by Theodore Roethke to music, but backed only by the rich basstones of Amster. Much of Elling's work, in fact, combines poetry, of which he is both student and creator, with music. His artistry goes beyond the quality of the voice (like "Body and Soul ). Hobgood's arrangement of "Change Partners/If You Never Come to Me —the former an Irving Berlin standard and Sinatra staple, the latter Brazilian—was enchanting. Its allure is in the way the Elling/Hobgood team treats the melody and in the way they both bring out the emotion and subtle awe.

"Tight is a rendition of Betty Carter's signature tune (dig her version on The Audience with Betty Carter, Verve, 1979) and was as hip and sassy as she. Elling had fun with it. The title could easily be seen as descriptive of the band, tight as a drum throughout. And speaking of drums, Jones provided the right support for each song, no matter the tempo, along with splendid solos. Elling is no stranger to Jack Kerouac, and a song influenced by that "beat," hip style proved as cool as hell and smooth as silk. It even had all four musicians clapping out different beats with their hands at the beginning and end of the tune—each different, but all in sync. A nice touch.

Elling closed the set (which seemed too brief) with a tune accompanied by Charlap, and the match was a gem. "Darn That Dream showed Elling's supple baritone voice on the bittersweet ballad, playing it like Dexter might have: wonderful twists of phases, and even octaves, but still managing to convey the lyric. And Charlap caressed the voice, embellished the music, and didn't intrude one iota. His soft, light touch was a perfect complement. No wonder Tony Bennett raves about his accompaniment.

In his own set, Charlap played what is by now a typical exhibition of his talent: superb musicianship and taste applied to songs that people know, and some they don't, but all pointedly American jazz. His fingers can be incredibly light, flying over the keyboard, yet he can project lush chords along with an understanding of harmony and expressive melodic phrasing that are a pleasure to hear.

Drummer Kenny Washington, by now a veteran of the trio, contributed brush work that stood out while providing empathetic support, particularly on "It's Only a Paper Moon and the little-known George Gershwin ballad "I Was So Young (You Were So Beautiful). Throughout the night, his ability to switch from sticks to brushes and catch each nuance — and there is much nuance in Charlap's playing — was remarkable. No doubt, it comes from the pair working together so long but also from Washington's rich experience and impressive list of credentials as a seasoned pro.

Peter Washington didn't fill his normal spot on contrabass, but no worries. Steve LaSpina, long an outstanding bassist with excellent chops, filled in fine. "Put On a Happy Face found LaSpina flying across his instrument with a strong tone and plenty of ideas. Charlap played pieces as diverse as Gerry Mulligan's "Rocker, played at a burning tempo, and Leonard Bernstein's "There's a Place For Us, which showed his poignant and expressive way with a song. A sweet set.

And a sweet night.

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