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Kurt Elling Highlights Tanglewood Jazz Festival

Kurt Elling Highlights Tanglewood Jazz Festival

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Elling's instrument is as strong as ever and he keeps developing as an artist.
Tanglewood Jazz Festival
Lenox, MA
September 5-6, 2010
The Tanglewood Jazz Festival in Lenox, Massachusetts, is a Labor Day weekend tradition, and while it was scaled back somewhat this year, the event at the scenic Berkshire Mountains came off quite well again, highlighted by the outstanding Kurt Elling, and featuring again a live taping of the radio program Radio Deluxe, hosted by John Pizzarelli and his wife, Jessica Molaskey.

The festival also continued to showcase young talent. But it also brought out the old in the form of the Count Basie and in the teaming up of two jazz veterans, pianist Bob James and reed man Eddie Daniels.

Elling was the highlight of the event once again, bringing his massive vocal talent to the forefront, brought to a sheen with the assistance of his remarkable collaborator and pianist, Laurence Hobgood. Hobgood also got the chance to put his talents more firmly in the evening.

Elling's instrument is as strong as ever and he keeps developing as an artist. He continues to bring new nuance to the music and finds different ways to approach both standards and new music. There just isn't a male vocalist in his class, not because of a dearth of voices. He's just leaps and bounds ahead of the class. He's not a sprinter either. Expect him to be out there for a long, long time.

He's at a point where his old albums—including this year's Grammy winner Dedicated to You (Concord, 2009) are behind him and a new one, to be called The Gate (Concord), isn't coming out until early 2011. So the audience was able to get a taste of what have become Elling classics—"My Foolish Heart" and "Nature Boy"— as well as other familiar material and a glimpse at the new material. Each taste was delicious.

Even the classic tunes aren't the same. "Foolish Heart" was a familiar arrangement, but, like all good jazzmen, Elling attacks it differently every time. Turns of phrase. Toying with notes. Thinking on his feet. The title cut from his award-winning CD was re-done (it has strings on the album), the group taking more liberties and bringing it a down-home feel.

Elling traded scat lines with his drummer, Ulysses Owens—yes, his drummer, not a horn player—in terrific fashion, leading into a new song for the next album that extols the power of the mind (that will be called "Samurai Hee Haw" or "Life of the Mind," depending on who you listen to) in a long modern poetry verse that Elling has become known for. A hip, version of the Beatles' "Norwegian Wood"—also from the new record—showed how Elling can remake things and make them personal and poignant. In addition to singing the sweet lyric in his own sweet way, Elling's voice soars majestically over the melody in sections. Guitarist John McLean, a new addition to the group, played a cool, abstract, even rockfish, solo that added a nice edge to the ballad.

A version of David Amran's "Pull My Daisy" from the beat era and Jack Kerouac, was clever and slick, right up Elling's alley. And "Stairway to the Stars" was rendered as sincerely as could be, his rich tenor filling the song with beauty and his style delivering the meaning.

In his own set, Hobgood showed off not only his strong chops, but the way he doesn't have to exploit the. He plays with heart and, in his version of "God Bless the Child,"" showed he can play with soul with a marvelous version that hailed as much from gospel as Billie Holiday. He opened with a new piece with a Japanese title that he said meant "White Cloud Way." It started serene and stately, Hobgood using the dynamic range of the piano to present a mood before being joined by Owens on drums and Harish Raghavan on bass. It was a great melody.

Hobgood's "Sanctuary" was full of varied rhythms over which the pianist laid out sophisticated ideas, both logical and earthy. "When the Heart Dances" was a great musical voyage and "Que Sera Sera" was made into a very spare, yet striking, ballad. Hopefully Hobgood gets more chances to show his wares.

The Radio Deluxe taping, the second at Tanglewood and hopefully a tradition, was once again a delight. It combines clever banter and comedy with great music. Pizzarelli and his wife are great hosts, as well as fine musicians. This year's special guest was singer Jane Monheit.

The order of the day is usually straight swinging, with Pizzarelli's fine quartet playing a variety of well-known songs that the hosts run through with grace and ease. The guitarist's latest album is a Duke Ellington tribute "Rockin' In Rhythm" (Telarc, 2010) and some of the music came from that, like "C Jam Blues, "Perdido" and a blending of "East St. Louis Toodle-oo" and "Don't Get Around Much Anymore." The couple's collaboration on "Haven't We Met," a Kenny Rankin tribute, and a merger of "Killing Me Softly" with "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" were executed in fine fashion. The couple is always in much on such things. It's always fun as well as high quality.

After Monheit's spot, which featured "My Romance" and "They Can't Take That Away from Me," he eldest Pizzarelli, Bucky, joined the group for more swinging fun. Father and son together on guitars are exquisite. They both play with taste and chops and swing like mad. The killed "Nuages" together.

The matching of James and Daniels is called "Broadway Boogie," but the name doesn't seem to have much to do with repertoire. Still, Daniels on clarinet and tenor sax was in good form, especially on the former where his tone is so rich and his execution so distinct. The James original "Mood Swing" had a waltz-like feel and Hoagy Carmichaell's "New Orleans" was a bluesy pleasure. Daniels full-bodied clarinet work was well suited for the Nawlins feel and bassist James Genus got a chance to flex his considerable solo muscles. An arrangement of "Makin' Whoopee" took the song far from its path, into a funkified statement where James sparkling piano style was put too good use.

The Basie organization is still very, very tight, brash and as swinging as ever. They reached back into their rich musical book to present hits like "Shiny Stockings," "One O'Clock Jump," "All of Me," and "Lil' Darlin'" as well as arrangements by people like Frank Foster ("Blues in Hoss' Flat"). Each has the distinctive swinging style and features some outstanding soloists, like trumpeters Mike Williams and Scotty Barnhart, trombonist Clarence Banks, and Doug Lawrence and Marshall McDonald on sax. Dave Glasser, alto sax, was back with the and blew a couple hot, hot solos. Pianist Tony Suggs does a good job of playing that economical Basie-style piano that contributes to the band's unique feel.

Carmen Bradford, the last vocalist to be hired by Basie himself, brought her huge, soulful voice to the proceedings for three numbers. She got emotional talking about her pleasant years when she was 23 (she's now 50), and belted out a grand "I Love Being Here With You" that summed up her feelings. Her powerful voice suited—hell, it was needed to keep up with—the power of the band.

For director Bill Hughes, who joined Basie in 1953, it was close to his last gig in that position. He said he's stepping aside for his son, Dennis, to take over. Hughes is part of the lineage of leaders after Basie's death that includes Thad Jones, Foster and Grover Mitchell.

Saxophonist Brandon Wright was the best of the lot at a small tent venue that features younger players. Originals like "Free Man" and "Odd Man Out" were good tunes with well crafted solos. The latter was a tribute to the old Blue Note Records days in the 50s and definitely had that feel. Trumpeter Alex Norris was outstanding on trumpet, playing flowing melodic ideas with a good tone. Wright's ballad feature, "Here's That Rainy Day" was sweet, hearty in tone and arresting in sentiment.

The Tanglewood Jazz Festival is a great injection of great music for the Berkshires. A grand setting for grand music and musicians.

Click here to watch our video coverage from Tanglewood 2010.

Photo Credit

Kristophe Diaz

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