Perhaps it's ironic: jazz wants to be free, yet boundaries abound. Nowhere has a boundary been more touchy or controversial than the line between jazz and rock. Miles Davis blurred it, trounced it, trod upon it, spat on it. And, in some circles, he was vilified; in others celebrated. Still is. You'd think the famous quote from Duke Ellington would put this sort of thing to rest, "There are two kinds of music; good music and the other kind." Why worry about classifications, after all? Just sit back and enjoy, right? Nevertheless, humans persist in their classification mania. Vocalist Kurt Elling's performance Saturday night at the Soiled Dove Underground made clear that he ascribes to the Miles and Duke philosophy, and leaves concerns over artificial classifications to others.
Elling is a jazz cat, make no mistake. But he's not afraid to draw his material from the rock side as well as the jazz side. Whether his material originates on this side or that, it all ends up on the jazz side. His jazz chops are well documented: the virtuosity, the range, the control, the hipster attitude (he uses "wig" as a verb). His repertoire includes a long list of bone fide jazz standards. For instance, Saturday night he sang "Dedicated to You," from one of the most revered jazz albums of all time, John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman (Impulse!, 1962). He also threw in "Moonlight Serenade" and "Nature Boy."
But he also sang a number of rock songs from the '60s, '70s and '80s. His inclusion of Joe Jackson's 1982 hit, "Steppin' Out," seemed particularly appropriate. Jackson came on the scene in 1979, as part of the British New Wave that significantly changed the sound of rock 'n' roll. But it turned out Jackson was actually a jazz guy at heart, as the cover to Body and Soul (A&M, 1984) made clear, recreating a Blue Note Sonny Rollins album cover; or his album of '50s R&B tunes, Jumpin' Jive (A&M, 1981). Saturday night, Elling went back to the '60s, for The Beatles' "Norwegian Wood," and the '70s, for Stevie Wonder's "Golden Lady."
His current album, The Gate (Concord, 2011), includes another cover from the classic rock era, but not one that typically comes to mind when considering that genre. He included "Matte Kudasai," by King Crimsonâ€”an art rock band of some longevity, and not exactly a common source of jazz materialâ€”from Discipline (DGM Live, 1981). He also included Miles Davis' "Blue in Green." More than anything, this type of material selection shows that Elling has little interest in being tied down to any one category.
The end result of the song selection, the arrangements and the pure vocal talent was something resembling the Baby Boomers' Frank Sinatra. It wasn't just the use of tunes that were standards for that generation, it was also the casual, relaxed delivery and stage presence that was reminiscent of the Chairman of the Board. The biggest difference was that Elling wasn't burdened by the annoying string section of Nelson Riddle's Orchestra. Instead, he benefitted from the considerable talents of pianist/arranger Laurence Hobgood. Hobgood and Elling have been collaborators since before Elling's first album, Close Your Eyes (Blue Note), from 1995. They were of one mind in their arrangements of the jazz standards and rock tunes as well as in performance. At one point Saturday night, Elling finished a scat sequence by holding a high note. Hobgood picked up on that note to begin his solo. It was impossible to tell where Elling left off and Hobgood began. Seamless.
The other band members were equally sympathetic, with guitarist John McLean as a real highlight. Hobgood performed most of the comping duties, leaving McLean to play mainly solos. It was worth the wait, as he painted extended melodic lines that could have been mini-jazz standards all their own. Elling sang a duet with each member of the band which usually involved some furious lick trading.
Elling's latest CD is his tenth. He has been steadily building a following through the discs and consistent touring worldwide. Saturday night's show was sold out. Was that a result of all the CDs? The 16 years he's been on the scene? The Baby Boomer favorites? Maybe. Mainly, it's because of some serious vocal talent and a highly creative approach to his craft which resulted in some pretty good music. Not the other kind.