I'd suggest it progresses from Satchmo
to Mel Torme to Jon Hendricks to Mark Murphy to Kurt Elling."
Kurt Elling, arguably the greatest jazz singer of his generation, has appeared in the Twin Cities on a number of occasions in the past decade, and his return visits are always eagerly anticipated. His use of scat and vocalese, his original lyrics for such masterpieces as Coltrane's "Revelation," and his interpretations of such great instrumental works as Dexter Gordon's sax solo on "Body and Soul" have put him at the creative apogee of modern jazz artists.
Through 2013, his full output of ten albums have earned an unprecedented ten Grammy nominations, including 2009's Grammy-winning Dedicated to You. He's topped the Downbeat Critic's Poll for Best Male Vocalist for each of the past 14 years, the Downbeat Reader's Poll for Best Male Vocalist eight times in the past decade, and the Jazz Journalists Association "Best Male Vocalist" for eight years of the past ten years, along with a long list of others and awards. Now touring in support of his latest Concord release, 1619 Broadway: The Brill Building Project (2012), our eager anticipation will be rewarded when Kurt Elling and his quintet visit the Dakota Jazz Club for two shows on February 13th.
Kurt Elling's father was a church musician, and playing instruments and singing was just a natural part of growing up. But it wasn't until college at Gustavous Adolphous in St. Peter, Minnesota that he was initially turned on to jazz, hearing records of Herbie Hancock, Dexter Gordon, Dave Brubeck and more in his dorm. He performed during his college days, attracting audiences with his scatting which at that time was not very familiar to midwest, small town audiences. Initially headed to graduate studies in divinity, ultimately Elling made the final turn to a career in jazz.
Citing key influence as Mark Murphy, John Hendricks and Frank Sinatra, Elling is best known for his scat, vocalese, and a variant informally known as "rant." Says Elling, "Ranting is an informal term a friend of mine came up with for improvised melodies coupled with improvised lyrics. Sometimes there is no melody - just an improvised story or 'open thought process.'" Many qualities make Kurt Elling the musical equivalent of a gold medal Olympian gymnast, leaping across intervals with his four-octave range, shifting meters as well as dynamics and pitch as if it is all a ball of vocal silly putty. He has ultimate control of his own instrument (his voice), sliding up and down like a melodic slinky toy, splattering rounds of notes like machine gun fire, filling space like a horn soloist.
In the past few years, Elling has toured with the great tenor saxophonist Ernie Watts and the string quartet, ETHEL. With Watts, Elling celebrated the collaboration of John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman, leading to the Grammy-winning recording, Dedicated to You. Elling went back to the studio with a titanic cast to record The Gate, released early in 2011. Produced by Don Was, whose credentials are more rock/pop oriented, Elling puts his unique interpretative spin on the music of King Crimson, Joe Jackson, Stevie Wonder and the Beatles, as well as giving new meaning to Miles Davis, Bill Evans and Herbie Hancock. In the words of Emily Cary (Washington Examiner), Elling "soars to heretofore improbable levels of jazz vocalese."
Next, Elling took off in yet another direction with 1619 Broadway: The Brill Building Project. Dubbed "the most important generator of popular songs in the Western world" (London Telegraph), Manhattan's Brill Building at 1619 Broadway has served as a cauldron of pop music creativity since the 1930s. The "Brill Sound" reflects some of the most iconic teams in the history of American popular music, including Lieber and Stoller ("Stand By Me"), Goffen and King ("Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?"), Mann and Weil ("You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling"), and Bacharach and David ("Walk On By"). Although the repertoire is more doo-wop than bebop, Elling has never been one to avoid a challenge, either to his artistic range or image. The results are both stunning and entertaining, two words long associated with Elling's work. On 1619 Broadway, songs run the musical gamut from Cahn and VanHeusen to Ellington to Carole King and Sam Cooke, from ballads to blues to rock and pop. (See Jazz Police review!)
But it's not all touring in support of recordings for Kurt Elling. Among his diverse projects include a recent tour with seven-string guitarist Charlie Hunter, joined only by drummer Derrick Phillips, in a pared-down setting that provided a "little bit more room for me to make my own notes happen," Elling says. He's also performed with big bands, with pianist Fred Hersch, and with John Hollenbeck's Claudia Quintet in recent years. In December 2012, he recorded with the WDR Symphony Orchestra in Cologne, Germany. And shortly after his Dakota visit, he will be in Scotland for a short tour with the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra to present "Syntopicon," a concert exploring life's philosophies through music and covering such material as Leonard Bernstein (West Side Story), John Scofield, Wayne Shorter, Charles Mingus, Thelonious Monk and more, and drawing on such modern arrangers as Geoffrey Keezer, Michael Abene, Bob Mintzer. Tommy Smith and Jim McNeely.
Pianist Xavier Davis replaces Elling's longtime collaborator, Laurence Hobgood [on this short tour of the Midwest]. A native of Grand Rapids, Michigan he first studied piano with his mother and the trombone in grade school. He first encountered jazz as a trombone major at Interlochen Arts Academy. Davis went on to study jazz piano at Western Michigan University and won numerous awards, including two Downbeat Student awards as a soloist and a Gilmore Foundation Emerging Artists Grant to study in New York City. Davis launched his professional career working for two years with legendary vocalist Betty Carter, as well as with Carl Allen, Tom Harrell, Stefon Harris, and Regina Carter; he has recorded or performed with a long "who's who" list including Freddie Hubbard, Sonny Fortune, Abbey Lincoln, Joe Lovano, Nicholas Payton, Nnenna Freelon and more. In 2005, Xavier became the first person to receive the "New Works" grant twice from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, and in 2008 joined the faculty of the Juilliard School.
Based in Chicago, guitarist John McLean has built his career over 25 years as a performer, composer, arranger, producer, bandleader and educator. As a highly regarded guitarist, he has toured and/or recorded with a star-studded list of artists, including Kurt Elling, Mose Allison, Dave Douglas, Dr. Lonnie Smith, Patricia Barber, Randy Brecker, Arthur Blythe, and many more. Noted the Chicago Reader, "No jazz musician in Chicago can more quickly electrify a tune or galvanize an audience..."
Clark Sommers is a Grammy-winning bassist steeped in the jazz tradition. The Chicago-area native studied with Ahmad Jamal's longtime bassist, James Cammack. Sommers has performed all over the world and is featured on more than 40 albums with renowned artists such as Kurt Elling, Cedar Walton, Ernie Watts, The Mighty Blue Kings, Marilyn McCoo, Marvin Hamlisch, Kevin Mahogany, Peter Bernstein, Michael Weiss, Ira Sullivan, Frank Wess and Charles McPherson, among others. "Clark Sommers rings true and honest in tone. The golden color pours a solid foundation to the timber of the group."
Drummer Kendrick Scott is fast becoming one of the top guns among a new generation of drummers. Raised in Houston, Scott has been featured in Terence Blanchard's band for the last six years and has appeared on the Grammy Award-winning and nominated recordings, A Tale of God's Will and Flow, to which he contributed original compositions and orchestrations. Just in his early 30s, Scott has already enjoyed appearances with Herbie Hancock, John Scofield, Dianne Reeves, Maria Schneider, Wayne Shorter, Angelique Kidjo, Bilal, Christian McBride, David Sanborn, John Patitucci, The Crusaders, Robert Glasper, Stefon Harris, Kenny Garrett, Pat Metheny, Nicholas Payton, Roy Hargrove, and more.
Like the Brill Building, Kurt Elling is a vast treasure chest of musical wonders, unfettered by genre if ultimately cushioned in jazz traditions. Missing his show would be like missing an opportunity to breathe fresh air. His upcoming two sets at the Dakota give us two chances at musical rejuvenation.