Elling Elevated the Words Like Bebop Solos

Singer Kurt Elling brought a much-needed musical and theatrical presence to the L.A. Philharmonic’s tip of the beret to the 1950s poets who created an artistic base in San Francisco. For too much of the night, the two jazz bands dominated with bluesy and free excursions that trampled over individual words and blocked the poetry’s intentions; words and riffs battled rather than complemented one another. Spoken word, which took a beating when the hall opened, is still a tough sell here.
The program design, the final night in the 10-concert West Coast, Left Coast series, was intelligent and intriguing — an attempt to connect 1950s words and music beyond the stereotypical haiku and bongos. Michael McClure, a contemporary of Allen Ginsberg, read his work with tenor saxophonist Charles Lloyd, a Californian since the mid-50s whose music in the ’60s flowed with social upheaval and whose later work embodied his search for spiritual solace. Together they struck a balance. But once the band performed without McClure they let loose in explosive yet coherent improvisation that revealed the constrictive nature of backing spoken passages.

An all-star band, with a front line of saxophonists John Handy and Joshua Redman, accompanied David Meltzer reading Ginsberg’s still-valid “America” and his own “No Eyes”; Exene Cervenka reading four short beat-era works before singing “Mercedes Benz”; and then McClure, a co-writer on the Janis Joplin ditty, ventured into Jack Kerouac’s “Mexico City Blues” and, oddly, Jim Morrison’s “Ode to L.A. While Thinking of Brian Jones, Deceased.”

The more logical the accompaniment the better. “No Eyes,” a poem about the great sax player Lester Young, was set to Charles Mingus’ “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat,” an improvised segment and “Lester Leaps In”; the vamp underneath the Morrison piece had “Riders on the Storm” in its veins; and Cervenka’s reading of Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s “I am Waiting” was nicely paired with Miles Davis’s “So What.”

Elsewhere, words and instrumental passages fought for the ear’s attention, especially on McClure’s reading of the knotty “Mexico City Blues.”

Elling, a deserving Grammy nominee for jazz vocal album, ramped up the drama by trading lines with the band on Kerouac’s “American Haikus,” approximating William S. Burroughs’ voice on “Words of Advice for Young People” and turning Gregory Corso’s “Writ on the Eve of My 32nd Birthday” into an actorly exercise. By 1950s standards, it’s hardly a pure reading, but Elling elevated the words in his performance, honoring Kerouac’s intentions of presenting phrases like bebop solos.