Kurt Elling at Tanglewood

Headlining Annual Labor Day Jazz Festival

By: - Sep 05, 2010

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Last night Kurt Elling returned to the Tanglewood Jazz Festival delivering a stunning set demonstrating why at 42 he is considered the greatest pure jazz singer of his generation. He won a Grammy for his 2009 CD Dedicated to You.

It is inadequate to say that Elling is a singer. His voice, no make that entire body and persona, functions as an instrument. A master of the technique of vocalese he traded riffsand rim shots with the galvanic,cake walking drummer Ulysses Owens. Elling can play or simulate any instrument or player from Trane to Miles.

In his delivery it’s not just a trick or vaudeville stunt. His style is deeply embedded and respectful of  tradition. It reflects not just the music of the post war Bop era but also the ethos of the hipster sensibility of the Beat writers like Kerouac, Corso and Ginsberg or the outlandish jive of comics from Lord Buckley to Lenny Bruce. His riffing scat style of bending notes and an instrumental attack on the melody, bending, twisting and cavorting, pays tribute to a pantheon of iconic masters from King Pleasure, and Eddie Jefferson, Oscar Brown, Jr., John Hendricks to the singular Johnny Hartman.

His Grammy winning CD which he signed for me in the tent after the show Dedicated to You: Kurt Elling Sings the Music of Coltrane and Hartman was recorded Live at Lincoln Center. We listened to it in the car on the way home after a twelve hour day at Tanglwood. After I post this review we are headed back for another day/ night double header.

The live CD evokes much of the flavor and charisma of the set we caught last night.

The evening began with a set by Elling’s long term collaborator Laurence Hobgood. It featured Harish Raghavan on bass with Ulysses Owens on drums. Later when playing with Elling the guitar of John McLean was added to the combo.  

While Elling may well be the best jazz singer on the planet right now, and a Grammy winner, it was a less than capacity audience in Ozawa Hall. Surprising as during the matinee live broadcast of Radio Deluxe, with John Pizzarelli and his clan, the Hall was packed to the rafters with an expansive crowd out on the lawn.

Hobgood is a superb pianist but not the kind of draw that adds to a double bill. In 2007 Elling appeared at the Festival on the undercard. Last year he popped up trading licks with his pal John Pizzarelli during an afternoon broadcast. On an aesthetic basis Elling is a wonderful headliner but, overall, this year’s Festival lacks the needed punch of star power to draw an adequate audience. Compared to the past few years the Friday night concert was cancelled. So that diminished the momentum coming into the weekend. The booking also seems to reflect budgeting austerity, like having Elling’s accompanists as an opening act. That just felt a bit too Bud Light.

The turnout for the Jazz Cafe, which presents emerging artists, was disappointing. There seemed to be more people outside on the benches than inside enjoying the lunch and dinner performances.

It was my pleasure to serve as MC for both events. In the past the Tent has been packed. It was hard to comprehend the weak response this time. Of course weather and the threat of Hurricane Earl is a factor. A lot of folks, fearing the worst, packed it in and decamped from the Berkshires to get a jump on work and school this week.

The iffy, overcast sky limited walk up sales and activity on the lawn. It was a spritzy afternoon with occasional showers and then bright sun, followed by clouds, and during the evening a cold front. The day started with steamy heat and ended with frost on the pumpkin. In other words, typical New England weather.

You missed a special treat in the Jazz Café. Part of the mandate is to provide vital exposure to emerging artists. This is the only way that we are going to sustain jazz as America’s greatest unique art form for coming generations. All the cats I dug and hung with have croaked. Even Herbie Hancock this summer at the Wood looked dated. During Radio Deluxe it was astonishing to see that Bucky Pizzarelli, the 85 year old scion of the jazz clan, can still cut it.

But none of us are getting younger so it was such a thrill and delight to hear the wonderful new players featured in the Tent. Because those slots are so precious this year the Festival launched a contest. It was all done on line with 200 entrants submitting videos of one live track. From this single selection a panel of six judges narrowed it down to four finalists.

At noon yesterday we heard a straight up set by the twenty something, New York based, tenor sax player, Brandon Wright. He and trumpet player Alex Norris evoked memories of Miles and Trane, in spirit, but not an attempt to be anything other than their wonderful selves. Accompanied by Alex Collins on piano, Jerome Jennings, drums, and Tom diCarlo, they showed just why they are winners deserving of more exposure. Tangelwood is a great line to add to the resume.

Later we caught up with Brandon and Alex touring the grounds. It was their first visit to the Berkshires and they expressed what an honor and thrill it had been for them.

From the Jazz Café we sprinted to the ticket office. There was a mix up on the press list. That meant we had to stay on campus in order to be back in the Jazz Café to MC the supper concert.

We were a bit late taking out seats for Radio Deluxe which we first caught last year. The Saturday afternoon gig used to feature Marian McPartland’s PBS show but now the Pizzarelli clan holds down the spot.

It’s an easy, laid back, anecdotal format. They even haul along their living room furniture to give the stage that homey ambiance. There is pitter patter between John, his wife, singer, Jessica Molaskey, and their adolescent daughter Madeline. I remarked to Astrid that she seemed so much older than last year. She more than holds her own in the cross cuts of quips. Smart kid growing up in the family business.

When not kidding around, the kind of easy going charm that means zillions of fans for the weekly broadcasts, Pizzarelli has serious chops. There were nice riffs behind guest artist Jane Monheit. We loved her version of the Annie Ross classic based on the music of Wardell Gray “Twisted.” She gave it a note for note, skid for scat rendering. Nice.

But the showstopper occurred when the octogenarian Bucky joined John for duets. The senior of the clan smiled and played along with all the gags. Great guy that Bucky. But then they got down to business. John plays well but Bucky is, well, a legend on jazz guitar. His history in the genre is astonishing including those 200 straight one-nighters with the crooner Vaughan Monroe.

Their duet on the Django Reinhardt standard “Nuages” was just delicious with all the great licks evoking the gypsy guitarist. They also offered a medley of Benny Goodman classics including the drum break, featuring Tony Tedesco, on “Sing Sing Sing.” Awesome. Bucky still cuts it. Amazing. Later we caught up with John signing CDs.

The radio show ended around four leaving a long stretch until the 6:30 PM set in the tent. We just hung out and bought some end of the season Tanglewood sweaters on sale. Boy did they come in handy.

When it started to rain the hostess of the Café was kind enough to let us in. As it turned out Kelley Johson and her husband John Hansen, who flew in from Seattle, lost luggage and all the day before, were rehearsing. It was too costly to fly in their group for one gig so they were working out the charts with bass player David Clark and drummer Yoron Israel. Rehearsals can be fascinating and it also provided a chance to get a feel for the music and her style before making an introduction.

After an hour or so of rehearsal I got to chat with Kelley. She is a lithe, hip, slickster with an easy style and engaging warmth. Although, she took exception to being described as a new or emerging artist. While not yet well known she is established on the West Coast and has cut four sides Make Someone Happy, Live at Birdland (a New York gig), Music in the Magic, and the latest Home. She performed that title track during a crisp and engaging set. Mostly she proved to be a story teller faithful to the spirit of the lyrics. We particularly enjoyed her interpretation of the Chick Webb swing tune “Savoy” which Ella first recorded with the drummer and his big band.

The cold front settled in when Elling took the stage. He followed a set by the Laurence Hobgood Trio. Its first tune translated from Japanese as “White Cloud Rain.” Hobgood noted the special flavor of performing it on Ozawa Hall.  This was followed by “Sanctuary.”

It seems that Elling's romantic, seductive approach to ballads is particularly appealing to women. He made a cryptic remark about the men in the audience who were dragged to the performance by their wives. “My Foolish Heart” aptly demonstrated that approach to a tune. From the Grammy album he followed with “Dedicated to You.”

Showing off his vocalese skills he riffed with the subtle drummer Ulysses Owens. It was mind boggling. Speaking of which, he rendered a very heady and deep excursion into “In the Life of the Mind.” Wiggy.

The Beatles “Norwegian Wood” from a new album project was rendered into a torchy jazz version. It is interesting that just a few days before Crosby Stills and Nash also covered that Beatles classic. He also sang his familiar version of "Nature Boy."

Elling launched into some hand jive joined in by the other band members as the drummer and bass played zamped a beat. This led into a funky, poetic rap about cats hanging in clubs in Chicago back in the day. When, who should walk in but God, the blind British pianist George Shearing. The Beat scenario was an appropriation from a passage in Kerouac's On the Road. There is a similar rap about Miles, Trane and Hartman on the CD Dedicated to You. It is Elling as experimenter and historian pulling and stretching the audience to the limit.

After the tasty set we joined Elling for a chat and photo op in the CD tent. What a treat to hang with a hipster even if just for a moment. Solid.