Review: Kurt Elling at Birdland Jazz Club, January 9, 2020
Kurt Elling: a name synonymous with jazz. He remains as much a luminary of the art form this year as last when I saw him pick up the mic on the same stage. His CDs from decades past are the sounds that should be filling lounges worth their weight, and the modern-day Kurt feels as much a throwback as he does new age. Bringing back some of the same jazz musicians alongside him for another series at Birdland (Stu Mindeman, Troy Roberts, and Clark Sommers), Elling gave the audience a bluesy tune to “escape the dread of modern day living.” Lines like Bob Dylan’s “Why do we go after whatever drives us mad,” and “It’s a hard rain’s gonna fall” were par for the course as Elling mixed luminous range on his scat singing with instrumental creativity worthy of the “Jazz corner of the world.”
Elling kept the set short in terms of quantity, but as expected with a jazz set, the crew made up for it in the depth, length, and quality. The solos were blended well into the songs to almost make it appear as if they were prepping recording cuts. Stu Mindeman’s solo on the third song, which appears to be from an upcoming album release, is an excellent example. Another example was John McLean’s eerie guitar that split lines about thick snowfall in the night. As if he was playing the bass beat of a space horror movie, the high-pitched twang rang out. And Kurt sang in his incredible voice, “The snow is deep on the ground…God shall not forget us.”
As much as the exotic guitar, smooth piano, and Dylan lyrics had a way of enrapturing an audience, they didn’t quite have the feel-good effect it seemed Elling was going for. It was more of that classic Blues concept of singing about the feelings to escape them. Elling’s props to the positivity of guest performer, Troy Roberts, were on point. Roberts’s saxophone on the later songs in the set felt much more light-hearted in tone and took the audience serenely through an incredible improvised melody. At the same time, this played well off of Elling’s deep vocals, especially on the last song, with stirring lines such as, “Every wave that breaks the surface of the deep to know a moment in the sun.” I’d say all of the solos on this last number were some of each performers’ best. McLean had a fantastic guitar solo here, followed by another gem by Mindeman, and a well-devised sequence by Johnathan Blake on the drums.
Overall, this group of performers had a special chemistry and are some of the best to share the stage at Birdland. I also highly recommend following Kurt Elling, who will appear in London, with his noir jazz musical, The Big Blind, on January 31st. It will include the incredible Dee Dee Bridgewater (3 Grammys and 1 Tony), and Clarke Peters.