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Kurt Elling Highlights Tanglewood Jazz Festival

Kurt Elling Highlights Tanglewood Jazz Festival
R.J. DeLuke By

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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.

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