Kurt Elling at Tanglewood

Last night Kurt Elling returned to the Tanglewood Jazz Festival delivering a stunning set demonstrating why at 42 he is considered the greatest pure jazz singer of his generation. He won a Grammy for his 2009 CD Dedicated to You.
It is inadequate to say that Elling is a singer. His voice, no make that entire body and persona, functions as an instrument. A master of the technique of vocalese he traded riffsand rim shots with the galvanic,cake walking drummer Ulysses Owens. Elling can play or simulate any instrument or player from Trane to Miles.

In his delivery it’s not just a trick or vaudeville stunt. His style is deeply embedded and respectful of tradition. It reflects not just the music of the post war Bop era but also the ethos of the hipster sensibility of the Beat writers like Kerouac, Corso and Ginsberg or the outlandish jive of comics from Lord Buckley to Lenny Bruce. His riffing scat style of bending notes and an instrumental attack on the melody, bending, twisting and cavorting, pays tribute to a pantheon of iconic masters from King Pleasure, and Eddie Jefferson, Oscar Brown, Jr., John Hendricks to the singular Johnny Hartman.

His Grammy winning CD which he signed for me in the tent after the show Dedicated to You: Kurt Elling Sings the Music of Coltrane and Hartman was recorded Live at Lincoln Center. We listened to it in the car on the way home after a twelve hour day at Tanglwood. After I post this review we are headed back for another day/ night double header.

The live CD evokes much of the flavor and charisma of the set we caught last night.

The evening began with a set by Elling’s long term collaborator Laurence Hobgood. It featured Harish Raghavan on bass with Ulysses Owens on drums. Later when playing with Elling the guitar of John McLean was added to the combo.

While Elling may well be the best jazz singer on the planet right now, and a Grammy winner, it was a less than capacity audience in Ozawa Hall. Surprising as during the matinee live broadcast of Radio Deluxe, with John Pizzarelli and his clan, the Hall was packed to the rafters with an expansive crowd out on the lawn.

Hobgood is a superb pianist but not the kind of draw that adds to a double bill. In 2007 Elling appeared at the Festival on the undercard. Last year he popped up trading licks with his pal John Pizzarelli during an afternoon broadcast. On an aesthetic basis Elling is a wonderful headliner but, overall, this year’s Festival lacks the needed punch of star power to draw an adequate audience. Compared to the past few years the Friday night concert was cancelled. So that diminished the momentum coming into the weekend. The booking also seems to reflect budgeting austerity, like having Elling’s accompanists as an opening act. That just felt a bit too Bud Light.