Top-shelf jazz was highlighted Saturday night at the Clearwater Jazz Holiday, a festival that dates back 33 years. As always seems the case, festivalgoers were treated to what felt like the first blast of fall: A sunny day at Coachman Park was followed by an evening of cool breezes and temps in the low '60s, offset by plenty of onstage heat.
Two critically acclaimed artists on Saturday's bill, Esperanza Spalding and Kurt Elling, made their Tampa Bay area debuts (as far as I know).
Elling, the day's musical highlight, handily demonstrated why he's widely viewed as the finest male jazz singer of his generation. Backed by longtime pianist Laurence Hobgood, guitarist John McLean, bassist Clark Sommers and drummer Kendrick Scott, Elling emphasized the music from his "1619 Broadway: The Brill Building Project."
The bluesy "I'm Satisfied" was a scatting tour de force, with the singer throwing in double-time passages, jumping octaves, hitting unexpected high notes, and interacting magnificently with his musicians, and he scatted like mad again on a tricked-up version of Steve Wonder's "Golden Lady," and "Nature Boy."
A funk/fusion arrangement of "On Broadway" was bolstered by McLean's acid-edged solo, while Doc Pomus's "Lonely Avenue" opened with Elling backed solely by bass, and had the musicians joining in on harmony vocals. Also impressive were opener "Come Fly With Me"; "Dedicated to You"; Ellington's ballad "I Like the Sunrise," with Elling's lyrics; and Bacharach-David favorite "A House is Not a Home."
For the encore, Elling and Hobgood took the stage alone for a hymn-like version of Paul Simon's "American tune," with the pianist supplying gospel-blues textures, a heartfelt, moving conclusion to a stunning show.