Singing in tongues: Kurt Elling scats his way into Rochester

Kurt Elling’s Dedicated to You appearance last night at the Eastman Theatre, in a benefit for the Commencement Park, was as Jeff Spevak put it “jazz as good as it gets.” The seven hundred souls who came to hear this Grammy-nominated singer were treated to a wonderful hour-and-a-half or so of some of the tunes from Elling’s new album Night Moves, earlier discs, and to arrangements of standards that Johnny Hartman and John Coltrane recorded and performed together 45 years ago.
Standing in Coltrane’s shoes for the evening was the Grammy-winning saxophonist Ernie Watts, who played some wonderful solos and almost “traded fours” with Elling at times. Behind them was the Laurence Hobgood Trio, although with new members in addition to Hobgood, who has been working with Kurt since the beginning. Joining the trio was Ulysses S. Owens, the incredible talented, young drummer who seems to have made Rochester his second home with multiple appearances at Exodus to Jazz and the RIJF, and Clark Summers working the bass (sorry, Jeff, Rob Amster no longer plays with them).

From the bop of Tight from the new Concord disc Nightmoves, to the lesson in vocalese Those Clouds Are Heavy, You Dig from his early recording Close Your Eyes, to a haunting retelling of Billy Strayhorn’s Lush Life at the close of the concert, Elling alternately filled that large space with his deep, rich baritone and the squeeks and trills of a trumpet or sax sounds. His instrument is truly amazing.

Elling’s musical partner Hobgood alternated from flights of fancy to bringing home the hard swing at a turn. As we’ve heard before, Ulysses Owens’ drumming was tight and nuanced. He’s clearly loving working with this group and it shows. At one point, Elling went around to each member of the rhythm section and told them to cut free for awhile. He moved out of the way and leaned on the end of the long Steinway as his band cut loose and played off each other for awhile before Hobgood swung them back into the song. He just leaned back and soaked it up. So did we (and ate it up too).