Kurt Elling On Top of His Game at the Toronto Jazz Festival

The Enwave Theatre was filled to the rafters Monday night for a powerhouse performance by American vocalist Kurt Elling and his quartet. Elling burst onto the international jazz scene in 1995 with his debut release on Blue Note Records, Close Your Eyes. Since then, it’s been full steam ahead for this consistently innovative artist.
He brings a sense of confidence and nonchalant hipness to the stage that almost belies his incredible musical talent. It’s a rare thing for this kind of musicality and charisma to intersect, but Elling seems to bring them together so effortlessly. He’s got the imprint of jazz artists past so fully engrained on him you can picture him calling someone a “cat” and actually making it work without any sense of irony.

Elling’s entire 90-minute set showcased his virtuosity as well as his showmanship. The evening got off to a hard swinging start with the Joe Jackson pop tune “Steppin’ Out” (which is featured on Elling’s latest Concord release, The Gate).

This wouldn’t be the last pop tune that Elling would interpret. He took material that could be considered trite, or even cheesy, like Earth, Wind & Fire’s ballad “After the Love is Gone” and transformed it into a heartbreaking, musically challenging opus that had, at its conclusion, at least half the crowd on their feet in a spontaneous standing ovation. A moving rendition of the Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood” featured a wailing guitar solo from John McLean. The guitarist was as comfortable rocking out as he was providing chunky, rhythm section, Freddy Green–style playing. In fact, the entire band showed an admirable versatility. Erik Privert’s melodic bass solos and Pete Van Nostrand’s intelligent drum work provided a perfect backdrop for Elling’s soaring, often gymnastic vocals.

From the jazz canon, Elling revisited “Dedicated to You,” the title track of his 2009 Grammy-winning recording celebrating the collaboration of John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman. A breakneck-paced version of “The Masquerade is Over” demonstrated why Elling is widely considered to be one of the finest scat singers of his generation. In these moments, the relationship between Elling and his pianist and arranger Laurence Hobgood really shone. After working together for 17 years, it’s sometimes hard to see where one’s musical ideas end and the other’s begin.

Elling closed the show with a daring and dynamic take on Stevie Wonder’s “Golden Lady.” It’s a brave singer who steps into Stevie’s territory, and Elling did so with both ease and flash. Once again, at the conclusion of this tune, the majority of the crowd was on their feet. A quiet encore followed, with just Elling and Hobgood working their way through Brazilian composer Antonio Carlos Jobim’s ballad “Luiza.” Elling recited an English translation of the Portuguese lyrics before singing the song in its original language. The gesture was a welcome reminder that despite his vocal prowess, Elling takes his job as a storyteller very seriously.

The sell-out crowd was not satisfied and a second encore was demanded. The rest of the band returned to the stage and closed the show out with a fan favourite, a sultry arrangement of “Save your Love for Me,” with a killer bass lick, familiar to many from live shows (and bootlegs) but not yet recorded on a studio release. In what will surely be a highlight of the entire festival, Kurt Elling showed Toronto that he is truly at the top of his game.