It's always a privilege to see Kurt Elling in concert, and--even though his guest appearances anywhere are also outstanding--it's doubly special to see him with his trio, led by pianist Laurence Hobgood. On this particular Dallas visit (at Brookhaven College in Farmers Branch, home of a Diane Schuur concert I saw a few years ago), he and the group were in fine form, mixing tunes from his newest CD (last year's Nightmoves) with older material and even an unrecorded gem.
One thing which, while nothing new, was really brought home this evening is that Elling is the possessor of a gorgeous instrument. (In his introduction, Brookhaven's Dean of Arts noted that even when Elling talks on the microphone, it still sounds musical.) He coaxes a variety of timbres from his voice in an amazing range, playing the part of everything from the hipster to the crooner when the music calls for it. In addition, he has become his generation's foremost practitioner of the art of vocalese, the practice of taking jazz instrumental solos, transcribing them and adding lyrics to them, no matter how angular a bebop line may be involved. This was best represented on "A New Body and Soul," the tour de force from the new CD that has its musical roots in a great Dexter Gordon solo, over which Elling has penned lyrics inspired by the birth of his daughter a few years ago. (Later in the evening, he would juxtapose a mellower--but no less effective--solo by fellow Chicagoan Von Freeman with words from a 13th-century Persian poet over Duke Ellington's "I Like the Sunrise.")
The trio--each member a master in his own right--served as perfect comrades in arms throughout the evening's journey. Pianist Hobgood had the perfect mix of chops and sensitivity; bassist Rob Amster, a longtime cohort, provided a solid foundation and got his own chance to shine on a duet with Eliing, "The Waking." Drummer Gregory Hutchinson, a pleasant surprise (it was his very first time to perform with the group on stage), added some fresh energy to the proceedings, most notably on "A New Body and Soul" and the closing number, "Resolution" (the adaptation of a movement of John Coltrane's A Love Supreme from a few years ago). The trio proved to be extremely tight with its accents and punches behind Elling's vocal romps, and they could change the dynamics from a whisper to a shout at moment's notice.
Though Nightmoves is a mellower, more ballad-y album than some of Elling's recent efforts, the pace never slowed, and the live setting uncovered fresh new elements of the music that brought the recorded versions even more to life. The unrecorded song, "You Are Too Beautiful," was made famous in jazz by John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman on their classic Impulse! recording, and Elling announced that a tour would start this summer--first in Europe, then in the States--devoted to the Trane/Hartman catalogue (along with other Trane ballads), with the trio accompanied by a string quartet and the great tenorist Ernie Watts. (All I can say to that is, I'm there.)
After a show of nearly an hour and a half in length, Elling came out for a short scatted encore that he did solo, off-mic, showing off his wonderful voice along with the fine acoustics of the room. Sure, it ended too soon (it could be said that twice that length would be too soon) but it was the most generous portion of Elling I'd seen since the Greeley festival in '04. The artist who's arguably the top male jazz singer of his generation (Kevin Mahogany is several years his senior, so there's room for both of them to stake their claim to unique pieces of real estate here) was once again in fine form--an evening well spent, and I look forward to the next one.