Kurt Elling has repeatedly proved his mettle as a vocalist, accumulating so many Downbeat awards and Grammy nominations that it seems superfluous to once again critique any of his performances. One can only say, "Ditto, he's done it again." But, because he keeps developing his scope, it's always worth taking a new look.
A telescopic perspective can help. The last time this reviewer saw Elling live was a decade ago at a classy but now defunct Philly jazz club, Zanzibar Blue. He had just released his album, Man in the Air (Blue Note, 2003). At that time, Elling's vocal persona was that of a beat generation Jack Kerouac character. Since then, he has added many new styles and inflections to his repertoire, and, in the current concert at the Kimmel Center, he incorporated many of them into a musical portrait of human nature and romance that he calls "Passion World," providing an interpretive feast that was appetizing from beginning to end.
Elling realizes that jazz singing has an element of theater, and he developed the performance into a series of character portrayals and life situations. He invoked a variety of jazz styles and idioms as he wended his way through a repertoire as diverse as van Heusen/Cahn's "Come Fly with Me," Duke/Harburg's "April in Paris," Sam Cooke's soul music hit "You Send Me," and a musical setting of a James Joyce poem by film composer Brian Byrne. Elling looks at a song as a way of combining words and music from diverse sources to create an artistic expression. The words and their sounds as they unfold have as much importance to him as the tune. This is a natural evolution from his long-time mastery of vocalese, setting words to improvisations.
Elling has a way of finding superb sidemen, each of whom offers something unique yet knows how to accompany a singer without intruding upon him. Emmet Cohen is an exciting young pianist who in this case did double duty on the Steinway and the Hammond B3 organ. John McLean moves resiliently between acid rock and soft bossa nova sounds, comfortable with a remarkable variety of guitar genres. Clark Sommers, a bassist who studied with Charlie Haden, and Kendrick Scott, a solid drummer steeped in bebop and hard bop, form Elling's ongoing core rhythm section. Together, the group made the music hop, while Elling focused on deep interpretation, at times approaching a psychoanalyst's exploration of the unconscious meaning implicit in the songs.
Elling began by taking the Frank Sinatra favorite, "Come Fly with Me" at a slow, reflective pace that contrasted with Sinatra's swinging version. In accordance with the "Passion World" theme, he used hesitations, syncopation, and vocal inflections to evoke an emotionally insecure man trying to make it with an evasive woman, thus bringing out the unconscious dynamic of lyrics where the persona has charming and seductive things to say. In the midst of Elling's psychological analysis, keyboardist Cohen took piano and organ solos with a very effective and unusual alternation of Bill Evans' impressionist introspection and rapid-fire lines with a touch of J.S. Bach.
Elling's version of "April in Paris" featured sharp scatting and organ backup that gave a frenzied feeling to a tune that has been done as everything from a sentimental ballad to Basie's swing approach. In keeping with the "passion" theme, one could imagine the side of love that is intense and burns itself out quickly, which might well happen in a Parisian springtime.
"Love's a Tangled Road" is a tune that Elling has previously performed with its composer, the French accordionist Richard Galliano. Elling evoked a feeling of French cabaret singing, which was nicely complemented by Clark Sommers on bass.
Elling then explained his intention of exploring diverse languages. He sang in French a tune recorded by Dizzy Gillespie, "Chiffre Deux, Nombre D'or," and an additional "français" twist was implicit in a very effective guitar solo by McLean. Elling's by now classic rendition of John Lennon's "Norwegian Wood" furthered the international flavor of the concert.
Next came a John McLean arrangement of a song by the Icelandic singer Bjork, introducing a poetic element into the mix. The song has an almost mystical melody and lyrics, such as the echoing mantra-like "Who is it who gave you back your crown?" An ancient god or mythical figure seemed to hover in the background, a feeling that was heightened by Cohen's subtle and sophisticated piano work.
Elling and the group then interposed two Latin numbers with a salsa twist and more than a touch of acid rock supplied by guitarist McLean. Pianist Cohen knocked off lively solos as the salsa effect intensified to the level of a block party in Spanish Harlem.
In sharp contrast to the celebratory salsa mood, Elling proceeded to the aforementioned setting of James Joyce's poem "Dear Heart" (Poem #29, Chamber Music, 1907), an early Joyce sonnet about a lover's plea to his woman: "Dear heart, why will you use me so?" Here the music was almost ethereal and highlighted by Clark Sommers' bass solo, which accentuated the Celtic feeling.
The set concluded with Antonio Carlos Jobim's "Chega De Saudade" ("No More Blues") with heavy duty scatting by Elling complemented by lively organ and drum solos. For encores, Elling sang the "The Waking" as a solo with bass accompaniment. His second encore, "La Vie en Rose" included — believe it or not — French and English vocalese. Rounding the evening off with this signature song by Edith Piaf highlighted the influence of cabaret singing which pervaded the whole concert.
It is good news that jazz appears to be making a revival at the Kimmel Center, the premiere music venue in Philadelphia, after several years when it almost fell off the map there. The Elling concert was the first of a new series entitled "Jazz at the Kimmel" featuring class acts like the newly minted Jazz Orchestra of Philadelphia; Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra; Maceo Parker; Irvin Mayfield and the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra; and Jason Moran and the Bandwagon. The series is one more indication that jazz is making a renaissance in Philly after several slow seasons brought on by the economic recession in 2008.