Kurt Elling is a prime number, divisible only by himself. With a deep, rich baritone to match the depth and richness of his creative life, clear enunciation and inventive phrasing, the vocalist and lyricist/poet is without peer today. Elling did not come to New Jersey City University on April 29 to promote his newest album. Yes, 1619 Broadway: The Brill Building Project was on the table in the lobby. The featured artist was there to sing with the university's jazz students.
The 19-member NJCU Jazz Ensemble and the Jazz Vocal Ensemble did their stuff with gusto in the first half of the bill, in the Gothic inspired, 1,000-seat Margaret Williams Theatre. Introduced by host Gary Walker from WBGO FM, the night began with two very different orchestral pieces, Maria Schneider's "Lo Viento" (The Wind) and "Copenhagen," titled by composer-bandleader Charles Davis after the brand of tobacco he chewed. Saxophonist Neil Johnson took the lead solo in the first piece with an instrument that looked like it, too, had a story to tell. Martin Morreto's guitar solo and trumpeter Joe Mosello's were right at home in a modern piece laced with Spanish undertones. A Bob Brookmeyer ballad, "First Love Song," was revealed lovingly by the orchestra and its soloists under Dr. Edward Joffe, master of woodwind instruments, performer and musical director.
The vocal ensemble, five incandescent singers, took front and center for two, too-short numbers –– Paul Desmond's classic "Take Five," arranged by Director Allen Farnham, and a traditional gospel song, "He Never Sleeps," recorded by Take 6 in 1988, both very ambitious selections with the voices to support them. The last piece was Alan Broadbent's unique arrangement for orchestra, "America the Beautiful." Broadbent himself was in the audience enjoying the performance.
During intermission, I relished our good luck in snagging a pair of front row seats for our $15 tickets. General admission ruled and I worried that traffic delays would land us in the lobby. But it was a rainy Monday night (a school night, as Elling pointed out later), and not even Elling had filled the huge house.
After the break, there was Kurt Elling. He lit up the stage and, as he seemed to look into the eyes of each orchestra member, there was an almost audible click of connection between them. They were loose and ready. Each of the five selections on the program was from different CDs, a delicious buffet of Elling recordings. From the CD The Gate, "Steppin' Out" opened the set. Joe Jackson's hit single was seasoned with Elling's sophisticated delivery. Duke Ellington's paean to Liberia, with Elling's reverent introduction, "I Like the Sunrise," from his Nightmoves album, and the 1933 Rodgers and Hart tune, "You Are Too Beautiful," followed. The recorded version is on Dedicated To You: Kurt Elling Sings the Music of Coltrane and Hartman. Then, from Flirting with Twilight, "Li'l Darlin'" Neal Hefti's slow swing ballad.
The final tune on the bill, the Coltrane instrumental "Resolution," for which Elling wrote the lyrics, is a spiritual and vocal tour de force a la Jon Hendricks' vocalese. Somehow, an incredible 700-plus words are sung in less than seven minutes. (That is more words than in this article!) The song is at once a prayer, a parable, and a plea. Elling based the lyric on what John Coltrane called his "humble offering to Him," A Love Supreme. A Universalist who accepts the gods of all religions, Coltrane served up some meaty ideas for the University of Chicago Divinity School graduate to digest.
The audience would not release Elling without an encore, "My Foolish Heart," from yet another album, This Time It's Love. As for me, there is no better instrumental than that of Bill Evans at the piano and no better vocal than Kurt Elling at his most tender; both are prime artists who have created definitive recordings of this touching jazz standard.
As for the well-traveled saxophone, Neil Johnson said he bought it at a pawn shop in Texas some years ago. Someday we may get the rest of that story.