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Live From Zanzibar Blue: Kurt Elling

Victor L. Schermer By

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As the set progressed, I found myself forgetting the surface image and being absorbed into the music Elling was creating, largely via his particular medium of vocalese.
Zanzibar Blue
Philadelphia, PA
April 2, 2004
First Set | 8:00PM

(This is the second in a series of reviews that we will be doing from the “catbird seat” at Zanzibar Blue, Philadelphia’s premiere jazz club, located at Broad and Walnut Streets in Center City. We are grateful to the Zanzibar management for their generosity and cooperation in this venture.)

Kurt Elling is a consummate jazz vocalist packaged in the persona of a nineteen-fifties beat generation existentialist, vaguely echoing Kenny Hagwood, who sang “Darn that Dream” on Miles Davis’ “Birth of the Cool." Elling began the set I attended at Zanzibar crooning “Moonlight Serenade” with that exaggerated sentiment that tells you that a relationship breakup or drug overdose is just around the corner despite the naive enthusiasm of such lovely lyrics! Clean shaven, in a charcoal blue blazer and shirt open at the collar, Elling evoked a “film noir” atmosphere, resembling the apparition of a man in an alley who knows that life is going to get complicated and possibly unpleasant, but still makes a show of being “hip” and oh-so “cool.”

Such a persona will be either strangely appealing or slightly acidic to you, the listener. The full-house crowd at Zanzibar (an amazingly large turnout for a rainy Friday night first set) obviously loved it. I myself, wearing a tweed sport jacket that needed dry cleaning and sitting as I did next to a gorgeous woman with a perfect physique, felt like the character in the film noir genre who desperately needs a shave and claims only a few parking tickets and past due bills to his name! Preferring the kind of insouciance that characterized say, Joe Williams or Johnny Hartman, and listening to the cheers for Elling and his group after the first number, I felt miserably out of place, except for the fact that I did read Jack Kerouac and Alan Ginsberg on the NewYork subways in my college days.

However, as the set progressed, I found myself forgetting the surface image and being absorbed into the music Elling was creating, largely via his particular medium of “vocalese,” the art of putting together words, transcribed instrumental solos, and improvisations in ways that evoke moods, lyrical possibilities, and variegated musical icons and styles (think especially of Lambert, Hendriks, and Ross as well as some of John Hendriks’ more recent work). Elling exhibits a remarkable dynamic and tonal range and an uncanny ability to evoke nuances of jazz expression. He takes the “vocalese” thing to a high level of expression that one would not have thought possible. There were two numbers that, for me, were astonishing in their depth and emotionality: “Funny Valentine,” based on a transcription of Miles Davis’ immortal soloing on that tune; and “Man in the Air,” the title song of Elling and company’s recently released CD. Vocalese usually adapts well to be-bop and hard-driving swing because the singer can play with the lyrics and the instrumental sound in playful and spontaneous-sounding ways. It is hard to imagine that anyone could succeed in doing a Davis solo in vocalese, because it is slow, lyrical, expressive, modal, and muted in the way that only Miles could achieve. Yet Elling pulls off such a feat flawlessly, using intonation, dynamics, punctuation, and sound qualities to create a stream of sound and passion that honor Davis’ intent rather than bastardizing it.

“Man in the Air” is a piece (more than a song, it is a musical essay) which involves an imagined dialogue between a “lonely man” and a “wise man.” This theme is perfectly suited to Elling, who has a background in theology and is a lover of poetry. It gives him an opportunity to bring together various themes about life and soulfulness which jazz strives to articulate into a rich fabric of musical expression that is well-complemented by the accompaniment and solos of his instrumentalists, Lawrence Hobgood on piano, Rob Amster on bass, and Frank Parker, Jr. on drums and percussion. Parker, in particular, shines in this piece, which made me want to go out and buy the recording. Generally, as the set progressed, the music shifted from jazz standards to the kind of “World Music” venue which “Man in the Air” promulgates. That shift was artfully negotiated and showed both the continuity of diverse jazz expressions and the fact that music is not so easily typed as “jazz/folk/classical/pops” as we think. Elling, like Cassandra Wilson, cuts across categories and focuses on using the medium of music to convey a feeling and a story.

Elling fans will be delighted to be reminded how well he is expanding his artistic repertoire and his audience, too. They know that he represents a serious voice for jazz both as a singer and an articulate and sensitive promulgator of the jazz “message” about our human soulfulness and our need for each other at our depths. But also, as I found in this performance at Zanzibar, he is really striving to push the limits of the art form in a particular way that is unique to him, and for this we can only be deeply appreciative in an era where it is hard enough for a musician to make a living much less give himself entirely to the music.

This writer is also grateful for the kind attentions of the staff of Zanzibar, especially Ms. Zoe Ashby, who makes my visits there comfortable and special. For me, Zanzibar sets the standard for what a jazz club ought to be: great acoustics and sound, superb cuisine, plenty of good seating, yet with a feeling of intimacy, and a staff where each person is friendlier and more thoughtful than the next. I recommend you view their website for your favorite artists- or maybe someone new to you- and make it a point to hear them in that wonderful setting. Certainly, I personally look forward, as Count Basie said, to doing Zanzibar “one more one’st” and again and again.

Visit Kurt Elling on the web at www.kurtelling.com .

Photo Credit
Ronnie James

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