Kurt Elling Electrifies San Francisco
The man who currently is regarded as “the outstanding male vocalist in jazz today,” DownBeat Critics Poll Male Vocalist for thirteen years 2000 – 2012, and Grammy-award winner Kurt Elling (Dedicated To You: 2009), made a one-night appearance at Yoshi's Jazz Club in San Francisco on Wednesday 10th October, 2012 for two shows. Jazz.com was on hand for the late show at 10:00PM.
And what a show it was!
Now, I am no longer incredulous at that thirteen-year string of DownBeat Critics Poll Awards. As far as I am concerned, Elling is the 21st Century 'jazz' incarnation of the original “Thin Man,” Francis Albert Sinatra; the 'kid from Hoboken.' This time the 'kid' is from Chicago; or more poetically, 'the Windy City.' This is no crass comparison of the two men. But there are striking similarities in their artistry and professional miens. For starters, like Sinatra, Elling eschews singing 'silly' songs; he keeps audiences captured with his silver-throated vocalese; singing to each individual's emotions separately. Elling's been called, “a powerful poetic spirit”; for my money, he's a jazz rhetorician nonpariel; deft at turning a phrase, or recounting a tale with a hipness nourished by a glib, articulate sophistication. He knows how to use a microphone, and his body language speaks cool, clear volumes. Elling's strong suits are, an awesome interpretive imagination, and the confidence hewn into a complete entertainer; but his greatest personal quality is his genuine humility.
Elling's touring band is nothing short of sensational. They have been together for a long time, and they play like it. Laurence Hobgood is on piano, he's been with Elling for eighteen years, and is a progressive and contemporary jazz piano virtuoso with a distinctly nuanced approach, having intimate knowledge of Elling's eclectic repertoire. Peripatetic bassist Clark Sommers plays with a rock-bottom, infectious grove; communicates his personality through his playing, and is securely steeped in the jazz tradition. John McLean is an innovative, exciting guitarist with a twenty-five year career behind him; he pushes the harmonic/rhythmic envelope hard, and can hold an audience riveted for extended periods. The most applicable phrase that describes drummer Kendrick Scott is “stylishly futuristic.” He can beat a rhythmic tattoo into a passing breeze. I witnessed him percussively assault with his drum sticks, a tambourine held by Elling, and then switch to play rhythmic patterns on sheets of paper, working each it into the overall drum rhythms without missing a beat. He's sick!
Elling and the band opened the show with the bluesy (On Broadway). The Barry Mann/Cynthia Weil 60s classic that came out of Brill Building at 1619 Broadway, New York City; a music location of special significance for the evening's program, and one of those songs with instant recognition that loosens up a crowd, connects them to the musicians, and puts everybody in a warm groove. When it was done, there was a hum in the audience. The electricity was flowing. It didn't take long for the house to signal they were loyal Elling fans and he quickly rewarded them with an emotionally charged reading of the title track from his 2009 Grammy-award CD: Dedicated To You.
The audience was now beautifully set up for some serious, guitar-pickin', bass-walkin', soul-shakin', handclappin' rhythm & blues, and they had no clue, until Elling made this introduction: “Well I mentioned earlier that we had a brand new recording, and it's based upon music that was written, or somehow had a deep association with the Brill Building…a couple of things that are on the record are a bit more tangential if, you have a didactic personality …but for my money, it all fits together, including,..it's kind of a bonus…we only have 72 minutes, or whatever on a record, and people get tired after 60 minutes…but for you tonight, we've got a l'il Doc Pomus, and Ray,(Charles), Ray talking to you,”…and then Elling slipped in the opening verse of (Lonely Avenue)…“Now my room has got two windows/But the sunshine never comes through/You know it's always dark and dreary/Since I broke off, baby with you/I live on a lonely avenue…I could cry, I could cry, I could cry/I could die, I could die, I could die…” The room went into instant rhythm & blues hysteria, it seemed as though every body knew exactly where this 'lonely room' was, or had spent quality time between those two windows…Elling and the band just poured the memories on…I heard a lot of screamin' and moanin'; especially from the women in the audience; that 'room' must have been especially tough on them. “Lonely Avenue” was tangential in another way, it moved the entire room on to the plane of the theatrical performer. They sang. They laughed. They preached. They testified. They screamed and whistled. They hand-clapped rhythmically. They entertained. They wanted to dance, but there just wasn't enough space in the sold out room bonded together by the experience of pain and loss.
The walk down the 'avenue' continued, guided deftly by Elling: “…Well just a little while ago, most of us in Chicago, most of us that came up in Chicago, lost one of our father figures…Von Freeman at eighty-eight, finally laid to rest…'Vonsky' took us all under is wing, he was a magnificent presence, as much as a tremendous artist, invaluable…a couple of years before he passed, I had been looking for a long time for one of his great solos to which I could affix one of my lyrics, his thing is so beyond being able to write a lyric for…he goes to a lot of spots…like just a handful of years ago, he put out a record of this magnificent Duke Ellington composition, a solo appeared, and I knew right away…so I went to my friend Rumi…a friend to all, I polished up my fears that he left me, so if you could imagine a thirteen century Rumi, twentieth century Duke Ellington, and twenty-first century Von Freeman, here is (I Like The Sunrise).” Speaking of going to 'a lot of spots,' Elling went to many of them on this tune, as he fit his lyric to the poetic section of Freeman's saxophone solo, simultaneously impregnating his improvisation with an emotional architecture that drew out a beginning, middle, and ending to communicate directly to, and touch just about any listener in the room.
But Elling is also an essential poetic raconteur for all ages and seasons, able to expound on life with great color and hilarious detail, consider this ultra hip discourse on the vicissitudes of life and living, by way of an introduction to Keith Jarrett's soulful, bluesy (Late Night Willie), as Laurence Hobgood's soft, background piano reflections illuminate Elling's musings like shimmering sunlight playing on the multi-colored leaves of Fall. Elling: “…had this not always been the case, that jazz musicians, had worked, back and forth, the defining line of spirits, that acknowledges no difference between, Saturday night, and Sunday morning…and if you really play it right, in life, you can handle it with the same standard…one of the problems, challenges, affronts really, it's an affront to consciousness…you might think that goes without saying…peevishness being without service to consciousness, what I'm talking about is a much deeper experience, I'm talking about the kind of consciousness that you define as having stayed up for upwards of thirty-six hours…you see things differently…now, I know there are some young people here who have not yet really come to a visceral understanding of string theory…I'm here to help you, because you see, when you gracefully swing into the morning after, not having divided up your attention with the all too physical misunderstanding that it is a new day, just because you've missed eight hours of it…you see what I'm driving at…now is always now…right? Physicists on this side of the room, they know the beautiful, dripping pearl of this moment, never to be repeated again, is repeated infinitely, in infinite time and space…and this…and this…and this, but you gotta be awake…now, not only do you have to be awake to come to that level of realization, it may be that you need to be awake, so that you don't miss..IT, that thing that you have been, dreaming of, thinking of, wishing for, perhaps even fighting for…if it gets to be a certain hour, or a given night, and you say, 'oh, I'm just gonna go home and watch the idiots on the idiot box, until I fall backwards into a stupor of ignorance and lackluster thought…' it won't happen, meaning that special one does not happen in your sleep. Now I have friends who have helped to keep me awake at odd hours, they are the friends in deed, they are the ones, who say, when you say, 'man, I'm just gonna…' they say, 'double espresso for my friend…maybe you think the night is done, but I do not, and I'm here to say that your prints on the scene may end up working out for you, but maybe your beefed up energy that comes into place and makes my reality come into focus, maybe the two of us together can effect some change, can tip the scales of balance, for a fair amount of goodness for all. Now, if we pass out, the bad guys are more likely to win, if we stay awake and we're present, we could be the vanguard of a whole new reality…so drink up! It was on 'Late Night Willie' that guitarist John McLean played the first of two memorable, extended solos that startled the audience with his speed and clarity on the fret, Elling did some of his finest scattin' and Hobgood left no doubt about his virtuosity as a pianist.
Elling took Carole King's classic 1971 heart-stopper (So Far Away) from his new, imaginative CD: 1619 Broadway: The Brill Building Project, presenting it in an intensely deliberate, agonizingly soulful arrangement that gave the song an extra layer emotional torment to add to the memories flooding back into the consciousness of many in the audience. Stevie Wonder's (Golden Lady) was designated as the final tune of the evening, but Elling and the band, with a second bracing guitar solo from John McLean ignited the crowd into a screaming conflagration that demanded an encore. Elling and pianist Laurence Hobgood obliged with a poignant song writen by Carlos Jobim which he sang in Portuguese and includes the stanza:
“Give me your mouth, that wild rose/Give me a kiss, like a ray of sun that strikes your hair/ Your hair that shatters the light into seven strands, like the seven thousand loves that I have guarded …”
Elling had thrown seven thousand roses and kisses to this audience over the course of the evening's performance, and they showed their enthusiasm and appreciation for his effort and humility with a standing ovation at the end. As I joined them I thought to myself: Sometimes a quick glance at the 'on stage' Elling, returns a flash of the chiseled Sinatra profile. For certainty though, I'm waiting for Elling to start adding hats to his daily sartorial elegance.