Kurt Elling: Emissary of Imagination; Ambassador of Possibility

Why was this such an incredible live music experience? What makes this man seem prophetic and his music seem magic? Kurt Elling is one of a rare breed of musicians whose complete mastery of their instrument has dissolved all technical barriers to expression. With these concerns removed from the equation, with effortless mastery of one’s instrument taken as given, what is there left to focus on but pure expression?
What happens in a performance like this one is that we get to see the fruition of the choices made by the person. What would you do if you could effectively sing any note within a four or five octave range, pitch-perfect should you so desire, as part of a musical line or idea phrased in any way you care to dream up and intoned and coloured as you desire?

Kurt Elling chooses to sing songs and tell stories. The art of vocalese, by its non-repetitive lyrical nature, lends itself beautifully to narrative. By being here to witness this performance, we get to see the end result of all of this particular artists’ work, training, experimentation, life experience and finally their choices that have led them into this concert hall tonight. It’s a breathtaking thing to behold the arrival of a journeyman who we can sense works always mindful of balancing craft (technique) and character (message, story).

Kurt, ever the crafty character, takes us on an aural tour of delicious possibility. Continuously engaged in a dance with music, he deftly rides the wave. He walks the line between harnessing the energy of the moment and knowing when to surrender to the other-worldly surges that inspirit a musician who is connected and present. This is the spectacle to which the audience are treated: one moment he dangles like a marionette, puppeteered from above by pure musical energy; the next moment he regains his limbs and resurges with complete control, delivering voice as a direct expression – of intention, of emotion, telling a story about which there can be no doubt.

He shoots for the truth and shoots from the hip – the ultra-hip, dig? His character on stage is warm, his rich baritone speech a comforting companion to his unrelenting displays of raw music. He is humble in his gratitude to the past and present masters of jazz. He is a living acknowledgement of the power of one human voice. He is emissary of imagination.

And then there is Kurt’s band. The same principles of mastery apply. Comparisons of relative development or achievement serve no purpose in this context; they can never diminish the beauty of the music created tonight. Kobe Watkins seemed subdued at the drum kit, but played the part graciously. He rose and fell dynamically as Kurt’s knees buckled and stiffened, digging in and punching the swing when Kurt punched the air. Kobe endured human form throughout the concert, later unleashing the monster at the 12 – 3am Bennetts Lane jam session. Whoa, look out!

Rob Amster has the solid time feel that you can almost see in the air – the warmth and roundness of each note has at its perfect centre an implacable metronomic consistency. This at once allows for the time to breathe within the length of each note, respecting and tending to the non-negotiable pulse all the while. It’s the kind of time sensibility every one of us can feel in our bellies when in the presence of someone who’s paid attention and worked on that – someone who’s layin’ it down. Couple that with a vocabulary of tasteful melody and a deep respect for harmonic simplicity and you get Kurt’s perfect foil. Hear the duo play The Waking together – that was a highlight.

Laurence Hobgood. Kurt describes him as his ‘counterpart’. He plays to Kurt’s imagination, as if he can hear, visualise and feel each of the great singer’s emotions as clearly as reading notes on a page. He plays piano in tandem, contrapuntally, in response to and in many other indescribable relationships with what is happening around him. When featured as a soloist, he embodies the principles of tension and release, one time setting up a left hand trill onto which he repeatedly dropped ever-lengthening right-hand bombs until finally the pause spell was broken and the moment exploded into a shower of musical momentum. Next moment, he’s soft as a mouse on a ballad; next moment hammering home the rhythmic figures of his own tasty arrangements. He is consummate.


My Foolish Heart swells like a heavy feeling, orchestral grandeur from a bare ensemble. A moth parable interlude is open to interpretation, an artwork within an artwork.

Save Your Love For Me had impossible moments of silence, it seemed like the musicians had left the stage, no-one was tapping their foot or bobbing their head, yet right on time they came flooding back into the swell.

Even when ssssspeaking
Hey may be sssswept up
In a ssssmooth ssssyllable,
Linger in a lossless lullabye.

Fencing with fate, boundless and boundariless
Dancing like a magicked marionette,
Bobbing and dangling by the thread of pulse
Guided from above in a sweet, jagged ballet.

A juggernaut jazzman learned of refrain
Coaxing moments, donning space, praising love.

Like a train stops in the middle of nowhere and of night,
Frosted breath hanging in the air;
Then to onwards and beyond, moment by moment
Living the hair’s breadth between full and empty –
The one that isn’t there at all.