Kurt Elling continues to show, on an extraordinarily consistent basis, that he is one of the most remarkable musicians to appear on the scene in the last decade. It's easy, and understandable, to call him a singer, or vocalist. He is that, for sure. But the instrument he carries is comprised of more than vocal chords and breath forced from lungs. He's a complete musician whose polished performances come from the soul of an artist. The twists and turns of melodic, rhythmic and harmonic phrases - whether subtle or in skyrocket flights of scat or vocalese verbalization; and whether planned or improvised - come from the same core as a Stan Getz solo or a Clifford Brown run.
Singer? Yes. But he's a true improvisational musician. Elling sees possibilities and has the guts to explore them. Sonic possibilities. Musical possibilities. And he has sympathetic musicians that enhance any mosaic Elling wants to create.
To see this band is to get a whole vocal experience, as the Kurt Elling Quartet demonstrated in a July 6 concert at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, NY. With Elling in great voice - the long tones, the flexible range - and accompanied by his veteran compatriots Laurence Hobgood on piano, Rob Amster on bass and Frank Parker on drums, the group tore it up. They just keep doin' it at a high level. Ballad or scorching tempo, this organization left an impression on a crowd of young (aspiring musicians enrolled in the college's summer jazz program), old and in-between fans who cheered for more and left smiling.
Elling promised the audience moments of romance as well as adventure, and kicked off with "Moonlight Serenade," done slower and more sensual than it appears on Flirting With Twilight
. It was utterly romantic, with slow and understated support from Hobgood and Amster. A beautiful rendition. "Easy Living" showed how Elling can sell a lyric like Sinatra could. "If you are presenting more challenging music, you are obliged to help the audience hear it, either by gesture or by eye contact or by a certain performance aspect. I think of that simply as an extension of the responsibilities I carry as a performing artist," he said in an All About Jazz interview
last summer. The longer Elling's career goes, the more polished a performer he has become. You believe "there's nothing in life but you" when it comes from the singer's sonorous and expressive tone. Cardio-vascular, baby.
Another ballad gem was a special treatment of "All the Way," which Elling performed for two friends in the crowd celebrating their first wedding anniversary. It's not one they'll ever forget, as Elling - starting a cappella - was sublime, his sound coming from the soul and weaving a story like a Ben Webster sax solo, with warm sound and inflection. He was charismatic, even theatrical, in delivery, and his voice filled the house, augmented by cascading piano from the irrepressible Hobgood and deep, rich bass notes from Amster,
"Winelight" took on a funky groove, keyed by Amster, but segued from the soft song Grover Washington penned to a tour-de-force ranting scat vehicle that saw Elling toy with sound, rhythm and dynamics. He was a blazing be-bopper one minute, an Indian sitar the next, a vocal acrobat in parts, and even ripped off a kind of Satchmo-meets-Native American chant. It was practiced, yet off-the-cuff.
"Man in the Air" was buoyant and sassy and after a mammoth solo by Hobgood, it segued into a monolog by Elling reminiscent of Coltrane's preaching in the "Acknowledgement" section of A Love Supreme
, exhibiting Elling's great sense of drama in delivering lyrics. Parker's cymbal work and drumming was ethereal behind the vocal, lending to the mood, before eventually getting back to the main course.
The band doesn't have a new CD out this year, but Elling was involved with pianist Fred Hersch's project in which the poetry of Walt Whitman was put to music. From that catalog, he performed "The Sleepers," which was reflective, lyrical and delicious as the words floated over melody. Elling's affinity for it perhaps comes from the fact that he is a student of such things and the lyrics he writes are so poetic.
Wayne Shorter's "Night Dreamer" was Elling at his vocalese best, matching his hip, some say beat-influenced, poetry over Shorter's complicated melody with the dexterity of a great athlete. Even at its most frantic, when the words are leaping fast and furious, hard to decipher, the spirit of the music comes across brilliantly through the improviser.
Pat Metheny's "Minuano" was a fitting closer, an uplifting, soaring journey in which all members of the band came together to make a joyful noise beneath Elling's resonant vocals. The song is heartening and inspiring and its driving crescendo as Elling intones: "Already been as high as Kathmandu/Willing to go as far as Timbuktu/Nowhere's too far away - I may catch up with you today/maybe today will finally be the day," can sweep the listener away.