Kurt Elling and the Klüvers Big Band at Birdland

With the schedule Kurt Elling keeps and the energy he expends on stage, you have to wonder how he does it. He takes your breath away. It’s almost scary the way he leaves it all out there.
As you watch him, you’re happy you’re at the 8:30 p.m. show because it doesn’t look like he’ll have anything left for 11.

That’s the way he was at the TD Ottawa International Jazz Festival in June, in what might have been the performance of the festival, and it’s the way he was on Friday night at Birdland.

Backed by the 15-piece Klüvers Big Band, with Jens Klüver as the conductor-artistic director, Elling churned through eight numbers in a high-energy 90 minutes, delivering highlight after highlight.

Elling toured Scandinavia with the Danish band in January and played the North Sea Jazz Festival with it in July. From that came an invitation to visit the United States for this four-city, 10-night tour.

The tour started with two nights at the club where Elling started, the Green Mill in Chicago, moved here for six nights at Birdland (ending Sunday), heads to Blues Alley in Washington on Tuesday, and finishes at the Wilbur Theatre in Boston on Wednesday.

That show figures to be special: it’ll be Elling’s 44th birthday.

At Birdland, Elling also had special guests join him every night: Miguel Zenon, Lew Tabackin, Ravi Coltrane (twice), Robin Eubanks, and Stefon Harris. Friday’s special guest was Eubanks. He and his trombone turned in a beautiful cameo during the second half of the set. Elling also had his own band with him: Laurence Hobgood (piano), Clark Sommers (bass) and Obed Calvaire (drums).

Elling’s obviously very comfortable at Birdland, which seems to have become his home club since he moved to Manhattan a couple of years ago. Before the 8:30 p.m. show, he walked around the club with his six-year-old daughter Luiza, mingling with the crowd, greeting friends and acquaintances, as did Hobgood.

After the set, Elling did more table-hopping, pausing to sign the occasional autograph. It was all very clubby. He might be from Chicago, but you could tell from the crowd at Birdland that New York owns him now.

The Klüvers Big Band started the set with a Thad Jones tune, Us. Elling stood waiting in the runway to the stage for the last minute or so before taking his spot on a crowded stage.

He started with Steppin’ Out and In the Still of the Night, before bringing Hobgood out for All Points West, from a jazz musical he’s working on. Then came The Waking, alone with Sommers, and one of the night’s highlights. Elling hit the high note and held it for longer than you would have believed possible.

Eubanks then came on for the rest of the set: Norwegian Wood, More Than You Know, Golden Lady, and the encore.

You’d normally expect My Foolish Heart to be the show-stopper, since that’s what it has come to be known as in Elling’s repertoire. But the one that lifted the roof, ably assisted by Eubanks, was More Than You Know. By the end of it, Elling, Eubanks, and the Big Band were in a roar. I don’t know if that song could be done any better.

By contrast, Elling’s version of My Foolish Heart was almost subdued. It was very much like the live version he did with the Bob Mintzer Big Band around 2004, more of a controlled reading than the supercharged one that appears on This Time It’s Love.

It was almost like he knew that since he had already lifted everyone with More Than You Know, he’d use this one last song to put the icing on the cake.

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Panzeri mentioned that Elling toured Scandinavia with the Klüvers Big Band earlier this year. Here’s a clip from a January show in Sweden: