Monterey Jazz Festival on Tour: All star collective

Within the very first minute of Tuesday night’s show in the Carpenter Theater at CenterStage, Kurt Elling was scatting and, like a flash, they were off. Wasting no time, like an exposition that just had to be told, the band’s featured members were introduced via short blasts of solo statements. Vocalist Elling, violinist Regina Carter, pianist Kenny Barron, and guitarist Russell Malone, joined by Barron’s bandmates bassist Kiyoshi Kitagawa and drummer Johnathan Blake, each with their very own opening statements, made up quite the cast of esteemed and decorated musicians to perform at a venue not generally known for its jazz programming.
Together known as the Monterey Jazz Festival on Tour and here presented by Modlin Downtown, the musicians gelled as a unit thanks to the cohesion of the Kenny Barron Trio and the adaptive characteristics of all, not to mention the month spent on the road before this appearance in Richmond. Their two-set program was carefully planned out with smaller combinations of musicians interspersed between the tunes on which all six played together. In other words, not much was left to chance in regards to the set list. The music itself, on the other hand, was a different story.

Elling’s personality is unique. In a quick paced version of Thelonious Monk’s “Rhythm-A-Ning,” Elling scatted for several choruses past when you thought he would stop; those final choruses were a climax elongated by his and the rhythm section’s intensity. His voice, distinctive and soulful, has recently been called the most influential in our time and has also recently been celebrated with a Grammy for Best Jazz Vocal Album. Quirky and unabashed, yet crystal clear, he backed up the praises given to him.

The masterful piano playing of Kenny Barron is relaxed, and he always manages to make it quite clear that his phrases are a part of something larger than the phrase itself. His solos, too, grow with excitement, aided by his loyal — and significantly younger — compadres. As for those bandmates, Kitogawa’s interesting rhythmic ideas were supported and propelled by Blake’s sturdy drive. At moments of their collective improvising (such as in “Rhythm-A-Ning,” a memorable tune that featured lengthy solos by every member of the band), the two were playful with the time and collaborative in their use of total silence.

In one non-sextet feature, guitarist Malone arpeggiated heavenly chords simulating a harp before unveiling a familiar melody in his solo take on The Jackson 5’s “I’ll Be There.” Later on, in Barron’s “Theme #1,” (written for the opening credits of a film that we’ll probably “never ever see,” according to the composer), Malone filled up the space left by the sparse rhythm section with a language full of blues and bebop, quick lines and impassioned and strident bended strings.

Regina Carter shone on her duet with Barron. Identifiable by the very first two notes, “Georgia On My Mind” was the vehicle for her versatility in techniques, but most of all her deep bluesy playing. Not above a quick-witted quote or two, her playing on the jollier numbers was light-hearted and impressive.

Closing with a fast “Nature Boy,” Blake had the last word. Even though the band was burning and Elling worked the very top of his falsetto, Blake’s incessant and fiery solo brought the show to an appropriately exciting end. With that, the esteemed and decorated musicians were off to bring the music of the Monterey Jazz Festival All-Stars to the next town lucky enough to host them.