Review: Kurt Elling and NJ City University Jazz Ensembles

April 29 is the last time I was able to attend a NJCU concert and I am going to miss the trips to Jersey City. California here I come!
The featured guest was the 11-time Grammy nominated vocalist Kurt Elling, who provided the second set. The 18-piece university jazz ensemble opened the first set with “Il Viento,” a marvelous eight-minute composition by Maria Schneider. The Spanish flavored piece opened with some beautiful up-tempo harmonies that had trombones with bucket mutes and flutes and clarinets followed by lovely guitar chords over muted trumpets.

The second selection was a major departure, “Copenhagen,” a signature tune from Artie Shaw's band. This was a traditional swinger driven by drummer Darrell Smith. Bob Brookmeyer's “First Love Song” followed, a beautiful ballad written for the Mel Lewis Orchestra. At this point the five-voice Vocal Jazz Ensemble, directed by Alan Farnham came on stage for a terrific version of “Take Five,” followed by “He Never Sleeps,” a modern Gospel. The close, rich vocal harmony was a pure delight.

Closing out the first half was a sensational arrangement of “America the Beautiful” by Alan Broadbent, who gave a master class at NJCU last year. The chart fires out of the chute, led by muted trombones followed by a transition to a Latin rhythm and a nice tenor solo by Christian DeGrave. Justin Hernandez delivered a blistering trumpet solo.

The second half belonged to Mr. Elling, winner of the DownBeat Critic's Poll for the last 13 consecutive years. He will perform in 20 different countries this year alone, including selling out the famous Ronnie Scotts's in London for eight shows. The man's four-octave voice is like no other that I have ever heard. His dynamic control and power to sustain tone at all levels is astounding. There are not many genuine jazz singers out there but this man is clearly in a class by himself.

His first selection, backed by the full university jazz ensemble, was “Steppin Out,” which seems to have become one of his signature tunes. The awesome arrangement by Mike Abene of this Joe Jackson tune really swings. I listened in awe of the man's incredible vocal instrument. The way he emphasized the color notes of the jazz chords was remarkable. The piece also featured a cool drum interlude prior to the final chorus.

Duke Ellington's “I Like the Sunrise” followed. This tune showcased Kurt's powerful voice and his ability to deliver amazing strong tones. Alan Quinn contributed an excellent solo on flugelhorn. The Rogers and Hart gem, “You are Too Beautiful,” followed. Kurt's sound flowed effortlessly from note to note on this charming ballad. “Li'l Darlin'” was next. I marveled at Kurt's vocal control as he stretched notes to amazing lengths, seemingly never taking a breath.

To complete the set Kurt chose “Resolution,” the second movement of Coltrane's “A Love Supreme.” One has to have an amazing jazz sensibility to sing this piece, I was overwhelmed. The audience seemed to be equally impressed and they applauded wildly. A long, raucous standing ovation brought Kurt out for a planned encore and he gifted us with a lovely rendition of “My Foolish Heart.” I hope you all have an opportunity to see Mr. Elling perform live someday.