Kurt Elling: Polished and Passionate

Don’t look now, but isn’t singer Kurt Elling just getting better and better?
With the pending release of his fifth CD, Flirting with Twilight in late August, he blew into Hartford Connecticut on July 22 for a performance at the Great Hartford Jazz Festival in Hartford, CT, with his trio, pianist Laurence Hobgood, bassist Rob Amster and drummer Paul Wertico. The band burst in Sunday night, knocked everyone out, brushed off it hands and moved on. Mission accomplished.

Damned, if Elling doesn’t get better and better!

Since making his splash with 1995’s Close Your Eyes, each of his Blue Note recordings has been Grammy nominated and each is a sparkler. On stage, as is usually the case in jazz, the music is more exciting. From the onset, Elling showed he was going to be a major voice to contend with. Now he’s proven himself a charismatic, dynamic, seasoned professional.

He’s now capturing both the magazine polls of both critics and fans without compromising by adding pop contrivances. Where does the sumbitch go from here?

It’s not just his strong, richly textured voice. There’s a total stage presence that’s friendly, yet professional. His language is sublime. His connection with the audience is obvious. But his communication with his band is extraordinary — always in progress and always precise. It’s not a trio with singer. It’s a band. A damned good one.

Hobgood has been Elling’s right hand man since the beginning and how he wails! His interplay with the singer is magnificent, and his solos are remarkable — chops, creativity, passion. The whole rhythm section is tight. Amster is rock solid on bass and he too knows where everyone’s going all the time. Drummer Wertico was on early Elling recordings and has since moved on. But he made the Hartford gig and his appearance was a big plus. He knows his mates, because their musical association goes back a ways. (He still works with Hobgood in the trio Union, with bassist Brian Torff). His combination of accompaniment and bombast was a treat — for the audience and the other musicians as well, who smiled broadly when Wertico would improvise in a gregarious fashion. (“Sometimes you just gotta get that stuff out,” said Elling with a big grin after a number in which Wertico finished with a particularly hot flourish).

Elling has a sense of drama about a lyric, like with “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” which frankly always sounded like such a throwaway song that one had to wonder why anyone ever performed it. Until Elling’s interpretation. He knows what has impact in a lyric and he knows how to deliver that impact. Often it’s in a spot where the listener didn’t expect it. And where other singers didn’t even know it existed.

That sense of drama often brings the listener to the edge, waiting for what sensual twist of a phrase, or change of octave is going to come next, and where the next long sonorous tone — caressing one single word over several bars of music — will lead. He opens you up to the emotion of a song, and at the same time imparts excitement through its presentation.

From the kickoff, the festival set had a great flow, covering burners and ballads. It started with “Easy Living” and “You Don’t Know What Love Is,” from the new CD, but also included his now-famous “ranting” to Coltrane’s “Revelations,” a heartfelt and funky version of Duke’s “Come Sunday,” and a vocalese rendition of Wayne Shorter’s “Night Dreamer.” There was also “Embraceable You,” “Nature Boy,” and the humorous “Soul Food” diatribe about home cooking, with just bass accompaniment.

Among them, “You Don’t Know What Love Is” may be destined to be a classic. The bold feel his tenor gives to the tune is startling, poignant and classy at the same time. It’s hip without losing the song’s intent. It’s deliciously aching without being sappy. If it doesn’t move you, something’s wrong.

The arrangements are excellent, and Hobgood deserves equal credit in that department, as co-arranger of many of them (as well as co-producer on many of the CDs). The band’s success is due in a large part to the fantastic pianist and his stunning and swinging accompaniment.

Elling is artist, poet and interpreter extraordinaire. He has the voice that can pull it all off like nobody else. When you’re listening to a song, you await the next phrase; during a set, you await the next number. You look forward to the group’s next CD. And after a live appearance, you want to seek out tour information and rush to the next place. There is no higher praise.