It has often been said that his is a generational
voice. The New York Times writes that "Elling
(Kurt) is the standout vocalist of our time."
In popular music and jazz, with the exception of Frank Sinatra, there hasn’t been a better (richer, resonant, brain-balming) voice. Like with the great opera baritones, the mere vibration excites pleasure centers which become their own reward. Sinatra was stronger at the top of the scale, in part because he had a better grasp of his limitations (understood what his voice could and couldn’t do), while Elling, in respect to range and interpretation, is decidedly more ambitious, which predicts a more uneven result, but one, which when it works -- and it does more often than not – enlarges the parameters of what is possible in both pop and jazz. One of Elling’s great achievements is that throughout his career he has not only reworked but transmuted what is otherwise base material (Sam Cooke’s “You Send Me”) into 24 carat gold.
Much of what is exceptional in Kurt Elling was in
evidence (in duo with el superlativo Panamanian pianist
Danilo Perez) during the 2019 edition of theMontreal
International Jazz Festival, which
was celebrating its 40th anniversary.
Elling and Perez, in a musical ballet of the highest
order, illustrated that the genre of jazz can be equally resilient
and adaptable without a trace-note of affectation (doing something
novel for the sake of novelty).
Along with Fred Hersch (his solo material), Kurt Elling is living proof that jazz can accommodate hitherto unexpressed feelings without resorting to in-your-face dissonance or contrived scaling (a strictly pre-determined sequence of notes) for the sake of originality and its desired effects.
Like Hersch, Elling allows his music to evolve without
any pre-conditions as it concerns the protocols of genre, to the
first effect that -- especially his recent work -- his follow-the-muse
approach allows for the poetic possibilities in music to find
their proper expression. By poetic I am referring to a combined
ability and willingness to concentrate what is ordinarily disparate
and dispersed into a singularity that leaves an audience larger
and wiser. “Culture is that which man has in his possession
when he has forgotten everything that he has read,” observes
the philosopher Ortega y Gasset.
For many years, I was almost embarrassed to admit that I was merely lukewarm toward Elling. His was too much voice (tone) and not enough of everything else; I was of course accused of not getting it. But that all changed about ten years ago, with his homage to John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman (2009) in an album entitled Dedicated to You. Not an uncommon development, as Elling entered his 40s, he was able to much more effectively translate his life experiences into music.
His concert at Monument National was easily the
vocal highlight of the festival -- Cecile McLoren Salvant and
Dianne Reeves enthusiasts will protest -- because Elling is to
his era what Billie Holiday or Sinatra were to theirs: simply
the best there is in voice and interpretation.
Any athlete will tell you that playing against a lesser player will have an adverse affect on the quality of his play – just as the reverse holds true. Has violinist Jaime Laredo ever played better then when teamed up with Glenn Gould to record Bach’s sonatas for violin and piano sonatas?
I have never heard Perez play so beautifully, so
considerately, so sympathetically. I’m not a fan of
creating in live time (one of Vijay Iyer’s relentlessly
negative contributions to a genre that invests far too much in
improvisation at the expense of composition which is why the standards
are perennially alive and ready to supply the deficit), but there
were moments in the concert where I suspected both Elling and
Perez were winging it, and were astonished by the positive result
such that there were a fair number of sequences satisfied the
conditions of composition, a rare occurrence in jazz which just
happens to accommodate a 99% instant-oblivion-rate in respect
to the long and winding solo.
What not only Elling and Perez but all musicians ultimately ask of their fellow musicians is that they bring the best out in each other, which is why what began as a tentative experiment has now evolved into a two year collaboration. Their exquisite exchanges produced an architecture based on a shared awareness of the importance of voicing that opened up an entirely new way of developing a motif. Think of four hands working on a sculpture; the raw material (the Standard) is there, it's final form a work in progress waiting to be brought to completion, with the medium of jazz supplying the spontaneity, adventure and discovery.
What next for Kurt Elling? Stay tuned. The world of music is his oyster, and that, in theory, Elling-willing, should one day include lieder and even opera. There’s nothing this singer can’t do.