Kurt Elling had some mighty big shoes to fill Sunday night: He was paying tribute to the 1963 ballads album "John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman," which, though only clocking in around half an hour, has been considered a classic for its more than four decade. Both Coltrane and Hartman were in superb form on the record.
But Elling's not exactly chopped liver, either. He's proven it in previous Portland Jazz Festival appearances, and he proved it again Sunday. He has fantastic breath, and he played with holding notes, drawing out the audience's expectations, several times. He's a very controlled singer, as well, one who's clearly spent time on his technique. He's polished, poised and flirtatious, with a slick hipster image leavened by wry acknowledgment. (It helps our relationship, he told the audience at one point, that we only spend about 90 minutes a year together -- a very astute observation. We humans don't always esteem what we gain too lightly.)
As Elling stepped into Hartman's role, saxophonist Ernie Watts stepped into Coltrane's. In Elling's own parlance, Watts killed it. Watts has a wide background -- he was part of the Tonight Show Band, for one -- but it's been as a jazz musician that he's made his mark. There's long been a streak of Coltrane in his work, so this show was a natural fit for him, and it showed. He was on. He was both intense and at ease, his solos coming out so smoothly that they reminded me of what Sonny Rollins said to me in a 2007 interview, that sometimes it all just comes together in you and it comes out and you don't quite know where it came from, only that it did.
Elling's also a very self-aware singer, one who never loses sight of the fact that he's putting on a show. That's not necessarily bad -- he obviously connected with the audience, several members of whom gave Elling repeated standing ovations during his set -- but it can make it a little harder to slip into the song, to adopt the unselfconsciousness that lets a song's reality become one's own experience. That's his personal style, though, and it's worked for him over the course of a long career. And judging by the audience's reaction -- if only it could be like this every night, Elling himself said at one point -- it worked for him on Sunday.