Charleston-based touring drummer Quentin Baxter talks often about striving for "intensity, not volume."
That theme was much in evidence Friday at Gaillard Auditorium when vocalist Kurt Elling and the 15-piece Chicago Jazz Orchestra romped through about a dozen tunes, absolutely slaying the Wachovia Jazz Series audience with traditional and post-modern music.
It was Elling's third turn at Spoleto Festival USA, and this might have been his best effort. With chops and pipes like his and the power and majesty of the orchestra, he couldn't miss. And he didn't.
A nearly sold out auditorium, about 2,200 people, witnessed stellar renditions in the first set of songs made famous by Frank Sinatra, and some bop-inflected repertoire in the second, reinterpreting standards such as "Nature Boy," made famous by Nat "King" Cole, and John Coletrane's "Resolution."
At one point on "Resolution," all 18 musicians were playing jagged, fast-paced bebop in rhythmic unison that was absolutely stunning. It grew in volume and built to the end but was never overpowering.
The ensemble opened with "I Only Have Eyes for You" then "In the Still of the Night," playing with a lot of dynamism and Elling's baritone soaring into a perfect-pitch falsetto as if he were part of Circus Flora.
Elling and the band strolled around the beat all night, mostly resting very comfortably behind it, thus swinging like a hammock during Hurricane Hugo some of the time, and getting way down in the rhythm pocket at other times.
It was an evening of many contrasts in the well-conceived program. There was consonance and dissonance, sweetness and raucousness and slow and turn-on-a-dime tempos.
Also very interesting was the band's rendition of Joe Zawinul's "A Remark You Made," made famous by Weather Report. Elling sang vocalese, adding lyrics and renaming his version "Time To Say Goodbye."
Wachovia heads down the homestretch tonight at 9 at the college of Charleston Cistern With Brazilian guitarist Sergio Santos and his band.