Pivoting from patter to poetry
What the singer Kurt Elling says between songs, and what he writes in some of his lyrics, feels jokey and genial and on the edge of corny. They’re the secondhand niceties of an older jazz culture. (Mr. Elling was born in 1967. Some of his lingo and patter was born around 1929.) But then he whomps you with something quite deep and practiced, quite serious and elevating.
Lots of American art has been a similar kind of Trojan horse, hiding the sublime inside the casual or the mannered. Up until the 1960s, this used to be a standard strategy in jazz. Not so much anymore. (Now the balance has shifted: jazz musicians want their work to be sublime inside and out.) In any case, Mr. Elling works hard at it, and sometimes really wins, as he did on Wednesday night at Birdland.
His calculated and thrilling early set, which included music from his new album, “The Gateâ€ (Concord), made it clear how much he prepares. There were the arrangements, worked out with his band’s musical director, the pianist Laurence Hobgood. There was the judicious, revisionist repertory, from Glenn Miller to Stevie Wonder to King Crimson. There were the lyrics he’s written for songs that were once purely instrumental, and the poetry he’s adapted for jazz.
One of the songs was a setting of Theodore Roethke’s poem “The Wakingâ€; another was a vocalese version, setting original lyrics to a pre-existing instrumental melody, that of a track from Marc Johnson’s “Bass Desires,â€ a 1985 ECM record only jazz people over 45 tend to know about.
But the set also reflected a pretty serious commitment to real-time music, in Mr. Elling’s carefully intense, improvised encounters with his strong rhythm-section players â€” the bassist Harish Raghavan and the drummer Terreon Gully â€” and in the sheer force of his own notes. As a bandleader and as a singer, Mr. Elling doesn’t lose control, ever. But he listens, and waits, and chooses his spots. And that part of the performance, almost the psychological part â€” his judiciousness, his restraint, his reasoned impulses, all that decision making â€” was as crucial as his voice.
There’s a guitarist in his current band â€” John McLean, from Chicago â€” but he played only for the second half of the set. And this made sense: he was a bit intense, a bit too much for the delicate balance of this music. Other than Mr. McLean’s solos, the music had very little outward intensity; often it went the other way. It went minimal and percussive, almost African, or reduced its arrangements to a couple of instruments at a time.
Mr. Elling’s baritone voice has range and resonance, and he can make it swell and strain to reach his high register or go very loud so that it distorts and almost cracks, with at least a reference to real emotion. It’s so effective when he does this that it can feel bullying or manipulative. But through microphone technique and a sense of pacing, he uses that power sparely. He’ll open only part of his mouth or sing away from the microphone or cuts vowels short.
When he finally did bring his voice to full capacity â€” in a version of Courtney Pine’s “Invisible (Higher Vibe)â€ â€” it came only in the set’s last few minutes. But you might have expected that he’d wait till the very end to clobber you. Even before the set began, he made a point of shaking hands and talking for a minute or so at each table in the club’s entire front row. He was setting up a kind of contract with the audience, and he never broke it.