Kurt Elling in Ottawa: A memorable performance

Since emerging in the mid-1990s, Chicagoan Kurt Elling has grown into one of his generation’s finest jazz singers. An astute interpreter of standards, as well as a clever lyric adapter of instrumental music by everyone from Pat Metheny and Lyle Mays to Herbie Hancock, Joe Zawinul and Keith Jarrett, Elling has also evolved into a charismatic performer, building his audience through near-relentless touring.
Elling is on the road in support of The Gate (Concord, 2011), and while there were people waiting for groups like Atomic, the previous evening at the National Arts Centre’s Studio, the lineup for Elling started a full ninety minutes before the 7:00PM performance, and by the time the doors opened, it was clear the singer was going to sell out the 300-seat venue.

Opening the set, supported only by longtime pianist Laurence Hobgood, it was when Elling and what then became a quartet kicked into a swinging version of Joe Jackson’s “Steppin’ Out,” from the pop singer’s 1982 hit album, Night and Day (A&M), that thing began to really cook. Less fiery and upbeat than the original, Elling quickly demonstrated both impeccable pitch and an ability to make a song his own without losing sight of what made it great in the first place. He proved capable of scatting with the best of them, but kept it in check, using it as an interpretive tool when the song demanded it, rather than a means of demonstrating his clearly virtuosic abilities.

The Gate is an album of covers, but with a difference: Elling digs into his own past, and some music that had particular meaning when he was growing up, and the choices may be surprising to some. “Steppin’ Out” is an obvious choice, given Jackson’s jazzier proclivities at the time; and it’s no particular surprise to see Elling cover Stevie Wonder’s “Golden Lady,” the closer to a 90-minute set that was expanded beyond the album’s six-minute version, to include lengthy and barnstorming solos from both Hobgood and guitarist John McLean, who joined the group three songs in, when Elling turned to another tune from The Gate, an imaginative version of The Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood.” But a jazz reading of King Crimson’s “Matte Kudesai,” from Discipline (DGM Live, 1981)? Elling didn’t perform it at his Ottawa show, though it proves just how far and wide the singer looks for source material, a quality that sets him aside from most jazz singers, who feel the purview begins and ends with The Great American Songbook.

“Norwegian Wood” was, in fact, a turning point in an already compelling set. The connection between Elling and Hobgood is profound—it should be, after working together for 16 years—and his bassist (Eric Privert) and drummer (Pete Van Nostrand), on only his third date subbing for regular drummer Ulysses Owens, Jr. were surprisingly good fits. But it was when McLean joined in—with an electric guitar that ranged from soft and warm to grittily overdriven, as the guitarist employed delay, reverb and a volume pedal to create lush orchestral swells—that the group lifted from being a conventional, albeit modern, jazz trio, to a quartet with far greater possibilities. Huddled over his guitar, McLean’s ideas were fresh, even as he incorporated certain stylistic precedents from guitarists like Bill Frisell, including pushing gently on his body while holding a chord, to create a slight pitch shift. But more than any effects or techniques, McLean impressed with unusual developmental ideas that included a curious blend of repetitive cascading motifs that built gradually, and an acute thematic sensibility when it comes to navigating changes.

Elling had the capacity crowd in his hands as—consummate showman that he is—he connected with his audience in a venue where, with no risen stage, the front row was literally just a couple of feet from the singer. While The Gate, produced by pop hit producer Don Was, features multi-tracked vocals creating not just harmonies, but percussive textures and more, Elling had only but voice to rely on in concert, and he made the most of it on songs like “Samurai Cowboy,” an adaptation of Marc Johnson’s “Samurai Hee-Haw,” first heard on the bassist’s Bass Desires (ECM, 1986). Delivered with quirky lyrics over a catchy double-stop bass groove, it also gave Privert a rare chance to solo and, egged on by the singer, he made the most of it.

A delicate ballad reading of Earth, Wind & Fire’s hit song “After the Love Has Gone,” gave Elling the opportunity to demonstrate remarkable control across his entire (and wide) range; a voice that never faltered when holding long, soft notes in the lower register, soaring to soulful highs as the song built to its powerful climax, and demonstrating equal strength, purity and elasticity in falsetto range. After an enthusiastic audience rose to its feet as the set closed with “Golden Lady,” Elling returned to the stage, along with Hobgood, for a tender reading of Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Luiza,” from Nightmoves (Concord, 2007); sung in Portuguese with absolute authenticity, it brought full circle a memorable performance that will, no doubt, go down as one of the best of OIJF 2011.