Kurt Elling: Spirit of the Monterey Jazz Festival

Great jazz draws on history while offering innovation. Singer Kurt Elling embodied that spirit and then some this weekend at the 46th annual Monterey Jazz Festival, channeling predecessors of the art form and conjuring a vision of its future.
Elling’s one-hour-plus set late Saturday kept a packed house at Dizzy’s Den in full thrall from the second he scatted a few wordless syllables at soundcheck to the final echoes of his last tune, a tribute to the late John Coltrane, at nearly 2 a.m.

A set by Elling is not just an exercise in jazz standards. It’s a literary and musical tour de force, incorporating swing and scat, philosophy and funk, and topped by a heaping dose of vocalese, the grand tradition of writing (and singing) lyrics to previously recorded instrumental solos. In all these areas, Elling’s talent remains undisputed. He is the greatest jazz singer of his generation and, arguably, the best performing on stage today.

Unlike an earlier set that evening with The Four Brothers, a scat supergroup with Elling and singers Mark Murphy, Kevin Mahogany and octogenarian vocal master Jon Hendricks, Elling sings more freely when unshackled by ensemble conventions. He and his trio – pianist Laurence Hobgood, bassist Rob Amster and drummer Frank Parker Jr. – think and react like one entity, completing thoughts the way identical twins finish each other’s sentences.

Dressed in a dapper green suit with his pony tail wrapped up in a bun, Elling captured the audience from the second he launched into Hoagy Carmichael’s “Stardust” without so much as a reference note from pianist Hobgood, no easy feat, considering that Carmichael’s 1928 melody still hobbles the best singers for intonation.

Yet, this former graduate student of theology turned vocal gymnast attacked the song head on, swooning through lines, bending notes like a saxophonist.

Elling possesses that rarest of gifts. He performs “in the zone,” turning happenstance into opportunities and pulling jewels from a bed of dirt, scrabble and scree.

Who knows if it was rehearsed, but when Elling crooned “When the nightingale tells his fairy tale” in “Stardust,” he backed away from the mic and whistled like a bird. Later, an ambulance siren invaded the Den just as Elling finished the title line from Jimmy Van Huesen and Sammy Cahn’s “All the Way.” Without missing a beat, he added “to the hospital.” When it happened a second time, he whined, “How come I can’t buy an effect like that?”

Elling waxed cantorial to end “In the Winelight,” his take on an old Grover Washington tune (talk about a global perspective), and showed us in getting there that funky can be sensual without being smooth.

Elling quoted Herman Hesse in his take on Dexter Gordon’s “Tanya Jean,” recited poetry by Robert Creely (with understated background from the trio) and ranted on “Pull The Daisy” (David Amram’s musical take on a “beat” poem by Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso and Jack Kerouac).

In anyone else’s hands, this would seem hokey, a bad throwback to the 1950s and some guy with a beret playing bongos in a smoky Greenwhich Village club. In Elling’s hands, it’s art.

To wit, when Elling pulled out “Never My Love,” The Association’s 1960s folk-rock hit, and sang “When I ask you to spend your whole life with me,” fists clenched, we believed him. Elling closed with his own vocalese rendition of “Resolution,” the second movement to Coltrane’s 1964 masterpiece, “A Love Supreme.” Writing lyrics to a Trane solo would seem daunting enough, but Elling sang every note dead on, faithful to ‘Trane’s legacy, leaving the crowd hungry for more.