Two Voices for Our Time: Kurt Elling and Lizz Wright at Orchestra Hall, February 18th

Orchestra Hall in downtown Minneapolis hosts a double Valentine musical gala on Saturday, February 18th, with two of the hottest headliners in vocal music, Kurt Elling and Lizz Wright. They perform back- to-back sets beginning at 8 pm, part of the 2011-2012 Piper-Jaffray Jazz Season.
Kurt Elling, one of the most acclaimed jazz singers of his generation, has appeared in the Twin Cities on a number of occasions in the past five years (at the Dakota and Ted Mann), and his return visits are always eagerly anticipated. His use of scat and vocalese, his original lyrics for such masterpieces as Coltrane’s “Resolution,” and his interpretations of such great instrumental works as Dexter Gordon’s sax solo on “Body and Soul” have put him at the creative apogee of modern jazz artists. His six Blue Note albums garnered seven Grammy nominations over ten years before he moved to Concord with 2007’s acclaimed Nightmoves, 2009’s Dedicated to You, and his 2011 release, The Gate—all Grammy nominees (Dedicated to You won the award). And for much of the past decade, Elling topped the Readers and Critics polls as Jazz Times, Downbeat and Jazz Journalists Association’s Male Vocalist of the Year.

Elling’s father was a church musician, and playing instruments and singing was just a natural part of growing up. But it wasn’t until college at Gustavus Adolphus in St. Peter, Minnesota that he was initially turned on to jazz, hearing records of Herbie Hancock, Dexter Gordon, Dave Brubeck and more in his dorm. He performed during his college days, attracting audiences with his scatting which at that time was not very familiar to midwest, small town audiences. Initially headed to graduate studies in divinity, ultimately Elling made the final turn to a career in jazz.

Influenced by Mark Murphy, Jon Hendricks and Frank Sinatra, Elling is best known for his development of vocalese, which he described in a BBC interview as “a subset of lyric writing and poetry that is unique to the jazz idiom. Vocalese is created in this way: One falls in love with an instrumental recording–a saxophone solo, piano solo, or bass solo. One transcribes the solo. One writes a lyric to fit the contours of that which was improvised for the recording. Then one learns to sing that melody as the new melody for the composition.”

Many qualities make Kurt Elling the musical equivalent of a gold medal Olympian gymnast, leaping across intervals with his four-octave range, shifting meters as well as dynamics and pitch as if it is all a ball of vocal silly putty. He has ultimate control of his own instrument (his voice), sliding up and down like a melodic slinky toy, splattering rounds of notes like machine gun fire, filling space like a horn soloist.

In the past few years, Elling and his trio have toured with the great tenor saxophonist Ernie Watts and the string quartet, ETHEL. With Watts, Elling has celebrated the collaboration of John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman, leading to the acclaimed recording and Grammy winner, Dedicated to You. Elling went back to the studio with a titanic cast to record The Gate, released in February 2011. Produced by Don Was whose credentials are more rock/pop oriented, Elling puts his unique interpretative spin on the music of King Crimson, Joe Jackson, Stevie Wonder and the Beatles, as well as giving new meaning to Miles Davis, Bill Evans and Herbie Hancock. With musical soulmate Laurence Hobgood, The Gate features Bob Mintzer on sax, John McLean on guitar, John Patitucci on bass and two drummers, Terreon Gulley and Kobie Watkins, as well as percussionist Lenny Castro. In the words of Emily Cary (Washington Examiner), Elling “soars to heretofore improbable levels of jazz vocalese.” In addition to its Grammy nomination, The Gate was named Jazz Week’s album of the year and won the Edison Prize for vocal jazz, often referred to as the Dutch Grammy.

Following up her 2011 Orchestra Hall debut, singer/songwriter Lizz Wright also has been heard locally at the Dakota Jazz Club. One of the fast-rising stars across genres, Wright melds blues and gospel to folk, soul and R&B. She launched her career with the Georgia-based In the Spirit ensemble and rose to prominence touring in celebration of the music of Billie Holiday. She released her own debut, Salt, on Verve in 2003, followed by Dreaming Wide Awake (2005). Her next CD, The Orchard (2008), featured 8 songs that she co-wrote, inspired by her rural Georgia hometown of Hahira. But it was her fourth effort, Fellowship (2010) filled with both gospel and secular inspirations (including Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, and Gladys Knight), that really sparked fireworks, garnering “Beyond Album of the Year” in the 2011 Downbeat Critics Poll.

A pastor’s daughter who grew up in the Pentecostal church, she sang gospel through high school and into her college studies at Georgia State University. But her transition from gospel to jazz was summed up in a bluesy rendition of “Amazing Grace” in an Atlanta club when she was 19. “The funny thing about the transition from only gospel to jazz is that I felt that jazz had a familiar sacredness to it,” she said. “In all of my adventures in music, I’ve been drawn in by sparks of the familiar inside of the unfamiliar. For example, when I first heard what people were calling the blues, I was taken aback, because I had heard that sound all my life. That was how the mothers sang in church.” Yet Wright is not your typical jazz singer, defying classification as her Downbeat poll topping “Beyond” release, Fellowship, attests. “I don’t know how to aim at groups. Songs carry stories that I need to tell, and I just pick them up and sing…My life is broad and very open, so my seemingly eclectic choices are also natural.”

Eclectic indeed. In addition to covering the range of music from Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and Nina Simone to Neil Young, Joe Henry and Led Zeppelin, she performed on a 2011 tour that highlighted the diversity of vocal music, working with African pop star Angelique Kidjo and American jazz diva Dianne Reeves in “Sing the Truth,” appearing at limited series of venues from concert halls to jazz festivals. And following her move from Brooklyn back to the South (North Carolina) two years ago, she completed culinary school, now filling her website with recipes and photos of her garden. Of course it is her musical garden that will offer a diverse harvest this weekend at Orchestra Hall.

It might be a few days late, but this aural valentine from Elling and Wright offers double value at 8 pm on February 18th.