If there's any genre of music that's truly built on the idea of spur-of-the-moment change, it's jazz. And so, in that very spirit, we had this performance.
The audience that came down to hear the inimitable Kate McGarry on this cool and humid summer night was swiftly reminded of the fact that things don't always work out as planned. McGarry, felled by flu-like symptoms in the midst of a two night stand at New York's Jazz Standard, was unable to go on as scheduled. But all was not lost. The trio working with the vaunted singer — guitarist Keith Ganz, bassist Sean Smith, and drummer Allison Miller — was still primed and ready to roll, and vocalist Kurt Elling generously came to the rescue. Apparently his talent is matched only by his kindness and benevolence.
The aforementioned trio kicked off the first of two sets with a pair of instrumental numbers before Elling joined the party. A waltzing "Emily" opened the show and proved to be the more impactful of the two, with Ganz quietly guiding the group, Smith providing stout support, and Miller going at it with intensity. The drummer, swinging with abandon, delivering roundhouse triplets, gleefully trading solos, and vamping on a Latin-esque groove, served as something of a foil for the guitarist, a more reserved but no less impressive musical force.
Elling's arrival on stage instantly signaled a change of course, balance, and focus. Everybody adjusted accordingly. First up for the singer was Oscar Brown Jr.'s adaptation of Julian Priester and Tommy Turrentine's "As Long As You're Living," a sly-and-bluesy 5/4 charmer that appears as a bonus track on Upward Spiral (OKeh, 2016) — a collaboratively-built recording that brings Elling into contact with The Branford Marsalis Quartet. The framework of the tune is the bass riff, so it only seemed fitting when Ganz and Miller dropped out in the middle of the piece so Elling could scat over Smith. Ganz, not to be outdone, delivered a fine solo, and Miller proved to be a percussive powderkeg when it was her turn to shine.
After jokingly speaking the virtues of writers named Sammy and seriously praising "the people who set the standards," Elling and company delivered a medley of the Sammy Fain-Sammy Cahn classic "The Second Star To The Right" paired with pianist Fred Hersch's "Stars." The former was a beautifully nuanced display that found Elling and Ganz breathing and phrasing as one; the latter — no doubt a nod to McGarry, who recorded it on Mercy Streets (Palmetto, 2005) — moved with an understated Brazilian vibe and spoke to the indigo coloring mentioned in the lyrics.
Another curve ball came at this point in the evening with the arrival of John Pizzarelli. He took to the stage with his guitar, adding another layer of sophistication to the music as Elling delivered his own vocalese lyric on saxophonist Dexter Gordon's famed live version of "Body And Soul." Both guitarists were spotlighted during this number and Elling delivered a simply stunning cadenza to bring things home. The singer was truly in his wheelhouse. The followup — a performance of pianist-composer Carla Bley's "Lawns," sans Pizzarelli — proved to be the most mesmerizing number on the program. Elling's description of the song as "deceptively simple" proved mysterious and true enough.
The set came to a close with a take on Miles Davis' immortal "All Blues" recast in a funky 4/4. Pizzarelli returned to take part in the festivities, Elling and Smith zoned in on the oh-so-familiar bass riff together, and Miller was a pure groove machine, delivering a slick drum breakdown that would've had James Brown smiling. Elling then sent everybody off with his stream-of-consciousness banter and well wishes. It proved to be a memorable performance born out of less-than-ideal circumstances. McGarry will go on to sing another day, and this writer will certainly try to be there to hear her, but this particular night belonged to Elling, Ganz, and the rest of the talented musicians on hand to save the day.