Mr. Cool Heats Up

If you're going to make your bones in jazz and the blues, what better place to do it than in Chicago? That's what Kurt Elling did, performing at the Green Mill Jazz Club inside the city limits – outside the limits of convention.
As a “yoot,” Elling was steeped in religion – his father was Kapellmeister at a Lutheran church, Kurt sang in the church choir, and pursued his Philosophy of Religion master's degree at the University of Chicago Divinity School. By day he was grappling with his sacred studies and by night was sitting-in in clubs, and, as Elling quipped, “Eventually Saturday night won out over Sunday morning.”

Elling morphed into a jazz vocalist, composer, lyricist and vocalese artist (performing lyrics over improvised jazz solos). He has recorded with Concord Jazz and Blue Note Labels, grabbing multiple Grammy noms and a 2009 Best Vocal Jazz Album Grammy Award for his album, Dedicated to You.

Elling has a weapon in his throat – his baritone voice covers over half the notes on the piano, often moving from basement to attic in the same breath. He uses his remarkable engine to offer up his original songs as well as take familiar tunes, turn them inside out, repackage them, and deliver them as new fare. He accomplishes his signature sound by reassigning notes, twisting, bending, and kicking out the borders of rhythm, phrasing and dynamics, at times manipulating a hand mike for piano-forte and fading echo effects. His invention gives new meaning to old tunes.

Last Saturday night, Elling, with his movie star good looks and shiny pointed toe boots, regaled an enthusiastic crowd at the Rose and Alfred Miniaci Performing Arts Center on the Nova Southeastern University Campus. The Kurt Elling Quintet was positioned as the season finale Concert from South Florida JAZZ.

Elling's quintet included collaborator and musical director Laurence Hobgood on piano, John McLean on guitar, Clark Sommers on double bass, and drummer Bryan Carter – all champion chopsmeisters.

The opus for the evening contained tunes from Elling's latest Grammy-nominated album – 1619 Broadway: The Brill Building Project.

The Brill Building, north of Times Square and uptown from the Tin Pan Alley neighborhood, has housed music industry offices and studios for songwriting and publishing music since 1931. It has been the incubator for some of the most popular American music tunes written, some of the writers headquartered at The Brill being Johnny Mercer, Carole King, Hal David, Burt Bacharach, Neil Diamond and Marvin Hamlisch.

The first set opened with Hoagy Carmichael's “Stardust,” Hobgood, impeccable on piano, accompanied Elling flawlessly, Elling at once rough around an edge and then soaring in a pure clarion tone. The accomplished silver haired Hobgood used both the inside and outside of his piano all night, at times reaching in to manipulate the strings. The quintet lit up on “Come Fly with Me” (Sammy Cahn, James Van Heusen), their parallel harmonies moving smoothly with Elling's mighty vocals, Hobgood breaking out in the center with warmth and precision.

Trim and dressed in black, McLean pulled beautiful sound out of his guitar (a classic Gibson 335?) on “You Send Me,” generating a silky, spooky and smoky effect to Elling's hypnotic take on this Sam Cooke tune.

After voice and drums traded licks, the sporty Carter matching and raising the stakes on Elling's riffs, Elling bantered with the audience, pointing out that we “were the sexiest people in south Florida,” quickly adding, “You have such excellent taste in singers!” He launched into vocalese and turned it over to the animated, casually dressed blond headed Sommers, who extracted honey notes from his double bass as he soloed, his instrument having a song-like and lyrical quality.

The Kurt Elling Quintet tours 200 nights per year – good for the fans, not so good for the players and their families. Elling punctuated the point with a haunting version of Carole King's “So Far Away,” his baritone resonating with the equivalent of a thousand mile stare, McLean equally as haunting on guitar.

A spacy stretched out sound coagulated into “On Broadway” to begin the second set. Sommers maintained a hearty bass lick with a minor bent, Carter's percussion tripped the path, as Elling turned this popular song on its ear, righted it, and sailed it to the balcony, his voice at one point sounding like a siren.

An unlikely duet between double bass and voice was a highlight of the evening. “The Waking,” written by Kurt Elling and Rob Amster, based on a poem by Theodore Roethke, was a beautiful ballad rendered so sweetly. It was seemingly difficult to distinguish where Sommers ended and his bass began, appearing as a single body, as he maintained a bass line that was steady, lilting and orchestral. Elling's voice was simply blissful as he sang, “I wake to sleep and take my waking slow… I learn by going where I have to go….”

Elling mused how another Brill tune was the right song at the right time. He was 19 with a broken down red pickup truck, an 18 year old girl sitting next to him, and “I Only Have Eyes for You” suddenly coming from the AM radio. The arrangement of this Al Dubin, Harry Warren tune was mesmerizing, the chordal progressions and phrasing from the band matching Elling's vocals to a T', Elling placing the “moon up high” with his voice.

These five musicians moved as one, often swinging from the same bat, all showcasing on Stevie Wonder's “Golden Lady.” Elling exploited his abundant baritone, falsetto and scatting chops, Carter drove hard as he did on many of his expansive drum solos, McLean ripped on guitar, and Sommers supplied the bottom. Elling sat down at the piano with longtime collaborator Hobgood as they duetted the refrain.

Before the boys split for London, the audience insisted on an encore. Elling returned to the stage and sang the blues, the band singing behind him, Tommy Dorsey style, “Uh-huh, uh-huh… lonely avenue….” Elling stopped the audience from clapping along on Sommers' bass solo, but invited them to snap their fingers, admonishing, “Snap is cool, clap is too hot.”

This was indeed a hot and humid evening with Mr. Cool.