LIVE: Kurt Elling Quartet + 1 @ Tanglewood Jazz Festival

Kurt Elling and Laurence Hobgood have been a team for sixteen years. In that time, Elling has given us some of the best vocal jazz in a generation, all of it backed by Hobgood’s brilliant musical direction and sterling piano work. Elling and Hobgood were a team again last weekend at Tanglewood’s Ozawa Hall – even when they weren’t onstage together. You see, Hobgood’s (sort of) gone into business for himself, releasing his own disc “When the Heart Dances.” Although “Heart” is a set of duets with hall of fame bassist Charlie Haden, Elling’s fellow “graduate of the Chicago philosophy of swinging” applied the music to a piano-trio format in an opening set that laid the foundation for a marvelously intimate evening.
Hobgood started “White Cloud Way” in the clear, playing soft meditative chords as the lights came down in one of the most amazing performance spaces on the planet. You’d think it would be impossible to make a concert intimate in a venue like this, but Hobgood had it nailed before bassist Harish Raghavan and drummer Ulysses Owens Jr. ever played a note. When they did play, though, the pastoral piece developed a sweet swing in its step, blooming like a flower as Raghavan’s rich, evocative tone and Owens’ “total drums” approach gave it additional nourishment.

It turns out Hobgood doesn’t need Elling’s voice to paint musical pictures. Echoing the darker parts of Herbie Hancock’s “Maiden Voyage” album, “Sanctuary” seemed to speak of a long, arduous journey filled with hardship and strife, while the title track to “Heart” gave us that lovely waltzing feeling that comes with being in love. Challenging us to “a bit of a blindfold test”, Hobgood presented “Que Sera Sera” as a wistful ballad that yearned for all the good things, and he made the set-closer “God Bless the Child” jump up with some knockout gospel blues. Hobgood’s set only lasted an hour, but that was all he and his crew needed to win hearts and minds.

Surprising everyone who saved their bathroom break for intermission, the lights came down again only fifteen minutes later, which was apparently long enough for Hobgood and his partners to change from casual wear to suits & ties. (Well, they were going to back up Elling, after all, and as Billy Connolly once said, “Times change, but standards must remain!”) As people hustled back to their places, the trio rolled into an up-tempo riff, and Elling walked out on stage, a huge smile on his face. “There’s a thin line between love and fascination,” he sang during his opener “This Foolish Heart.” In that case, Elling’s performance was infinitely fascinating.

Elling has a sense of control many instrumentalists would maim to have. He’s not so much a singer as he is an instrument, played with a dexterity that lets him grab any note and hold it tight enough to keep it – and still take care not to crush it. He hit a note high & hard on “Dedicated to You”, but worked the mic so that the sound system didn’t have a meltdown; he made Lennon & McCartney’s “Norwegian Wood” his own simply by adding one beat; he broke off in the middle of a tune to recite (from memory) a mammoth passage from Jack Kerouac’s Beat bible “On The Road”; and on the new piece “Life of the Mind”, he even used his jacket as a percussion instrument, rubbing the mic against his lapel during a dynamite trading session with Owens.

“That cool night air does something to me,” Elling chuckled. Guitarist John McLean (another Chicagoan who joined the band early in the set) sure did something, giving Elling a second foil while adding a texture and energy that was both different and exciting. Elling only played an hour, and did no encore, but that’s where his teamwork with Hobgood comes into play: There may have officially been two separate sets, but those sets were all of a beautiful piece that closed out Day One of the Tanglewood Jazz Festival in grand style. Any vocal lover who saw this performance – and braved the rain to see the Kelley Johnson Quartet’s outstanding set at Tanglewood’s Jazz Café – couldn’t have felt any way but satisfied.