Seven takes on Kurt Elling’s show in Ottawa

First, I’ll convey what some of Ottawa’s jazz singers thought of Kurt Elling’s concert on Monday night at the Library and Archives Canada auditorium. I managed to canvass six of them after the show for their thoughts:
Anna Williams: “I may think of something I didn’t like in the morning, but, for right now, it’s still pure bliss! Loved his breath control, his high notes made me want to weep (OK, I might be exaggerating, but I thought some of them were achingly beautiful); enjoyed how he owned that mic — no shyness there! I left inspired!!!”

Martine Courage: “Wow, from the first note to the last, it was a heck of a ride. I had a smile on my face and a tear in my eye the whole show. The piano player was a monster, the drummer tasteful and playful. Rob (Frayne, Courage’s husband/fellow musician) said he was very organic, but could also play like a metronome. We haven’t had a singer of Kurt Elling’s abilities and stature in Ottawa for a long time. Apparently he’s coming back this summer? I’m already mentally there!”

Elise Letourneau: I’ve been following Kurt’s work for about 15 years now since his Close Your Eyes album. It was a complete chance encounter when I approached a record store asking for some CDs that could be donated as door prizes for a charity event, and they included Kurt and Laurence, bless them! The first things that caught me were his sense of adventure and abandon, and his use of word and prose. And his voice has richened and ripened with every subsequent album. Last night was the first opportunity I’ve had to hear them live. I expected to be gobsmacked, and I was – though it was one of those rare instances where the expectation of being blown away didn’t actually diminish the pleasure of being blown away. I loved every note. I was thrilled when he did Tanya Jean – that is a Herculean piece of memorization. I loved the breadth of texture that was explored. And it was sweet to hear Laurence and the guys too. Hope they are coming back this way soon.

Kellylee Evans: “Master class for vocalists. As usual, Kurt Elling just makes me want to go home and practice!”

Kim Kaskiw: “Pure rhythmic and harmonic genius from all four wonderful musicians. I loved every note!”

Floyd Hutchinson: “He makes us go, ‘We’re not worthy!'”

For my part, I agree with all these raves. But before I get rolling, here’s as complete a set list as I can muster:

Moonlight Serenade
Steppin’ Out
Dedicated To You
Samurai Cowboy/Life of the Mind
Pull My Daisy
Moody’s Mood For Love
You Are Too Beautiful
Tanya Jean
Nature Boy
Stairway to the Stars (encore)

I’d not seen Elling perform before, and so I was keen to see if his live show would be as exuberant and enthralling as his discs (and for that matter, YouTube videos) promised. I wasn’t disappointed. He and his band (pianist Laurence Hobgood, bassist Harish Raghavan, drummer Ullyses Owens) presented a long, varied set that showcased the singer’s many strengths.

Elling was a seductive crooner on the selections that opened and closed his set, as well as on Dedicated To You and You Are Too Beautiful. The ballads found him beckoning audiences to embrace him not only with his honeyed voice, but with his body language too. Indeed, he was always physically present in his music-making, and especially so as he and drummer Owens traded hyper-rhythmic musical statements as they kicked off Samurai Cowboy/Life of the Mind.

The singer also delved into jazz-world lore several times. During David Amram’s Pull My Daisy, he brought to life the George Shearing passage from Jack Kerouac’s On The Road. During the epic Tanya Jean, one of Elling’s long-time vocalese set-pieces, the singer delivered a titanic Dexter Gordon solo for which he had composed lyrics. But the night’s most spellbinding selection was the Elling/Hobgood duet rendition of Moody’s Mood For Love — their version of the timeless classic by saxophonist/singer/force for good and bebop James Moody, who died last week.

Elling was at his most energetic and extroverted during the resolute grooving of Steppin’ Out (Joe Jackson’s pop tune was winningly reconfigured) and the big-finish crowd-pleaser Nature Boy, during which his bandmates tried to match Elling’s output. With his quick hands and smart phrasing, drummer Owens was scene-stealingly good.

But in the end, this was a show about a divo giving his all. Whether Elling was wringing his own or other people’s lyrics for maximum drama, scatting with the energy and acumen of a mighty hornplayer, or unleashing his inner hipster’s killing vocalese, Elling was a musical maximalist, setting his sights on rendering one tour de force after another. With his power, commitment and charisma, Elling should have no trouble winning over thousands in Confederation Park next summer, if, as the scuttlebutt suggests, the Ottawa festival brings him back next summer.