MJF All-Stars: Inspired Collaborations & Elling the Standout

At their best, jazz festivals gather a roster of international talent for a weekend of musicmaking, creating a crucible for collaborations between musicians who don’t normally play together.
In this spirit, the Ferst Center for the Arts at Georgia Tech hosted mainstays from California’s Monterey Jazz Festival Saturday night. As a touring group, they last stopped in Atlanta two years ago (at Symphony Hall) with a sextet featuring pianist Benny Green and saxophonist James Moody. It was a celebration of Monterey’s 50th anniversary. The artists created a festival experience by breaking out into different configurations, creating multiple concerts within the main event. But the enormity of Symphony Hall and the physical distance between the musicians and the audience muted the energy of the evening’s performances.

Saturday’s concert, led by pianist Kenny Barron, was different. Bassist Kiyoshi Kitagawa and drummer Johnathan Blake provided able assistance accompanying Barron and a front line of guitarist Russell Malone, violinist Regina Carter and singer Kurt Elling. In the smaller Georgia Tech venue, with the audience closer to the stage, the musicians better connected with the crowd.

The group played a number of tunes en masse, including Barron’s compositions “Calypso” and “Theme #1.” But the most compelling songs were performed by pieces of the whole. Barron, a thoughtful and considerate accompanist, backed up Elling on “You Are Too Beautiful” in a quartet setting, then laced a piano trio with break-neck runs and a commanding sound. Malone’s solo version of The Jackson 5’s “I’ll Be There” started with impressionistic, fingerstyle phrases that evolved to bebop acrobatics. Giddy applause rang out for Carter and Barron from the very first notes of their “Georgia On My Mind-Amazing Grace” duet.

For me, Elling was the standout in an evening stacked with inspiring musical talent. The singer scatted on a vocalese version of Thelonious Monk’s “Rhythm A Ning” — a spry, fun melody. His solo, initiated by a staccato chord from the piano, began with a carefully thought out series of boops and bops. As he warmed into the improvisation, creating nonsense phrases that sounded only a few degrees removed from English, Elling elongated vowels and changed rhythms. He moved from quarter notes into sixteenth note runs, his body twisting and turning, and finished with full-bodied falsetto statements, sweat visible on his forehead.

Like Elling, the artists loaded each song with intense musicality. Barron and co. were at the tail end of the first part of a 36-show tour and could easily have phoned in a performance. They chose, however, to forge a connection with the music and the audience, bringing the best elements of a world-class music festival to Atlanta.