KEQ in Santa Barbara: Going from strength to strength

When the best place to see jazz hosts the best jazz there is to see, it can feel like a celestial convergence, a planetary alignment that’s as rare and beautiful as the northern lights. Kurt Elling came to the Lobero last week with a program largely rooted in songs from his most recent album, The Gate, and sang them with a kind of primal abandon. By turns, the man’s voice swung loose, then keening, soulful, and ecstatic. The longer lines and rhythmic complexities of the pop compositions he’s singing now—Lennon and McCartney’s “Norwegian Wood,” Joe Jackson’s “Steppin’ Out,” and a spellbinding version of “After the Love Has Gone” (originally a hit for Earth, Wind and Fire)—perfectly complement Elling’s expansive sense of drama.
The band, led by pianist and longtime Elling collaborator Laurence Hobgood, went from strength to strength, conjuring expansive soundscapes out of these familiar progressions and reveling in the interplay with the singer’s dark-wood and red-wine timbres. Guitarist John McLean dueled with Elling on several numbers, including an incandescent “Norwegian Wood.” Ulysses Owens on drums and Harish Raghaven on bass played their hearts out; from inside groove to outside jazz, they consistently worked as one. As great as the band was, the last word on this show has to be about the singer. Elling, who was wonderful in tribute to Johnny Hartman and John Coltrane on the Ballads tour, has become even better by stepping out, this time representing himself.