Thursday, February 10, 2011

Concert review: Kurt Elling at the Dakota, first night, both sets

Kurt Elling
Who: Kurt Elling, voice;  Laurence Hobgood, piano; Harish Raghavan, bass; Ulysses Owens Jr., drums; John McLean, guitar • Where: DakotaWhen: Wednesday, February 9, 2011

A blow-by-blow for Kurt Elling fans and others who plan to catch the band on their latest tour. (By “others,” I mean those who haven’t yet seen Elling live, because once you do, you’re a fan.) This tour is mostly about The Gate, the new CD produced by Don Was and the successor to Dedicated to You: Kurt Elling Sings the Music of Coltrane and Hartman, for which Elling won his long-overdue first Grammy in 2010. But it’s not just about The Gate. Here are the setlists and remarks along the way.


“Moonlight Serenade” (from Flirting with Twilight, 2001). Elling wrote the lyrics to the version of the Glenn Miller/Mitchell Parish song recorded by Charlie Haden and Quartet West on Haunted Heart (1991). A romantic showcase for his voice, which only gets better. Everyone in the house feels all warm and cozy at the end, when suddenly he turns around, snaps his fingers, and the band moves immediately into…

Laurence Hobgood
“Steppin’ Out” (from The Gate, 2011). A burst of energy and a big mood shift. In live performance, this Joe Jackson tune gets extras: scatting from Elling, stretch-out solos from Hobgood and Owens. It’s early in the set for a drum solo and a reminder to keep a close watch on the terrific Owens.

“Dedicated to You” (from Dedicated to You, 2009). A speedier, more swinging and upbeat version than heard on the album (which featured the string quartet ETHEL). Elling leaps into falsetto and the crowd loves it. Hobgood’s arrangement makes this a very different tune than the one recorded by Coltrane and Hartman.

Ulysses Owens Jr.
“Samurai Cowboy” (from The Gate, 2011). Elling starts with a bit of beatboxing (Carnage in the house?), then engages in a dialogue with Owens and his drums. No background vocals (bum-dum-dum, shh-shh-shh), as on the album; just the two of them, playfully sparring. At one point, Elling wipes the mic back and forth on the lapel of his chocolate velvet jacket. Later, he makes motor noises and zooms around the stage. Elling’s lyrics (to an original tune by bassist Marc Johnson) are witty, twisted, and hip, and he acts them out with relish. This is a good-time song with a lot of room for invention and interpretation, and everyone makes the most of it.

“Norwegian Wood” (from The Gate, 2011). Guitarist John McLean joins the band for this reinvention of the Beatles tune and contributes a fiery solo. New sound, new energy. Interestingly, Elling makes a slight but significant change to the original lyrics (in live performance and on the recording): “I crawled off to sleep it off in the bath.” For meaning, or for rhythm?

“Matte Kudasai” (from The Gate, 2011). On his website, Elling writes about this King Crimson song: “'Matte Kudasai’ is the Japanese phrase for ‘please wait.’ There is an indeterminate poetic flavor about that composition that has always stayed with me and been relevant to me.” Ever since I first heard it, this song has been stuck in my head. In performance, it’s even more beautiful, with Owens on soft brushes.

“Golden Lady” (from The Gate, 2011). In live performance, Elling scats, has a musical conversation with McLean, growls, and scales the falsetto heights. The crowd goes wild.

Comments: The set had variety and left room for everyone to strut his stuff, but it was short (about an hour) and there was no encore. Afterward, Elling circulated through the room, greeting people and graciously accepting compliments. I had the chance to ask if he might record with Richard Galliano, the famed French accordionist with whom he performed last year at Jazz at Lincoln Center, and he said “Maybe.” An archival recording of that performance exists and he would like to do more but there are no concrete plans. I also asked, “Is there a Sinatra project in the works?” and he said “Eh.”


“Tanya Jean” (from The Messenger, 1997). Starting with this tune—music by Donald Byrd, solo by Dexter Gordon, rapid-fire, tongue-twisting lyrics by Elling—was like wearing a sandwich board saying THIS IS A WHOLE NEW SET. This was the Elling many of us had come to see, the one who sings Coltrane’s “Resolution” and Dexter Gordon’s version of “Body and Soul” and blows the roof off the venue. The recorded version is almost entirely sung (with overdubs); last night’s live performance featured a bluesy piano solo by Hobgood.

“Nighttown, Lady Bright” (from The Gate, 2011). The last song on the new CD worked well as the second song in the second set. A mood-changer, with a spoken-word section quoted from Duke Ellington’s Music Is My Mistress.

“Estaté.” Elling has not yet recorded this lilting love song to summer, a perfect choice for a Minnesota night where temperatures were plunging below zero. McLean comes out early for this one and stays.

Harish Raghavan
“The Waking” (from Nightmoves, 2007). A selection from the fine CD that preceded Dedicated to You. (One jazz vocalist has told me that this CD changed her life.) Accompanied only by bass (here, Raghavan; on the CD, Rob Amster, Elling’s former bass player of many years), Elling sings the lovely poem by Theodore Roethke: “I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.” There’s a man in the audience who seems especially moved by this song; tears run down his cheeks. The crowd is smaller for this set, and so is the room; the Dakota pulls a curtain between its two halves (the bar side and the restaurant side) when the house isn’t full, creating a more intimate space. Elling ends on a deep, low note.

“After the Love Is Gone” (from The Gate, 2011). Hobgood’s arrangement and Elling’s performance had already transformed this Earth, Wind & Fire tune from ’80s schlock and glitter (sorry, EWF fans) into a stripped-down, heartfelt ballad about deeply felt loss. In live performance, it’s even more emotionally raw, to the point where I was holding back tears. The song itself should stand up and sing, “Thank you, Laurence and Kurt! You saved me!”

Unscripted banter follows, during which Elling riffs (among many other things) about how dry it is when it’s cold, how Mark Murphy would surround himself with humidifiers when he sang, and how he used to think that was crazy but no longer does. Throughout, Hobgood accompanies him on piano. There’s a joke about a flood, and a bit about how “The devil is pulling at the back of your coat—It looks like your best friend—It is,” which introduces the next song.

“Late Night Willie.”  This has not yet appeared on an Elling CD, though I’ve read it was originally slated for The Gate. I heard him sing it at Gustavus Adolphus College in 2009 (back when “Samurai Cowboy” was called “Kabuki Cowboy”). I hope he records it someday. It’s a fun tune with terrific lyrics: “Unless you’re Miles Davis/There’s always some other/some brother smoother than you…. When you’re finally dead/Earth can be your bed/Life’s a child waiting to be fed.” I like this song a lot. It’s about staying up late, staying out late, making the most of every minute.

John McLean
“Higher Vibe” (from Man in the Air, 2003). I have always loved this song, a Courtney Pine tune with relatively sparse (for Elling) lyrics. It’s a prayer in long-held notes (“Higher viiiiiiiiiiiiiiiibe, live in meeeeeeeeeee”) that ends with this beautiful, uplifting line: “Everyone you know is alive and loved and shining in the mind of God.” McLean solos and all is good, except the sound guy (who roams the room with an iPad) tries an effect that sounds like Elling has something caught in his throat. But “shining in the mind of God” is not a bad sentiment with which to end the night. He makes the word "God" last forever and ever, amen.

Comments: The second set was the one to see. It was longer, looser, more jazzy and free. Elling seems to prefer second sets. A lot of jazz artists seem to prefer them. Maybe because they’re warmed up, because the crowd is different, because when the set is over, they’re done working for the night. After exiting the stage, Elling came back into the room and sat at a high table near the exit, making himself available. Hobgood took a seat at the bar. Raghavan and McLean were in the green room with the door open. I’m not sure where Owens was; perhaps he had left, or was somewhere else in the club. We spoke briefly with Elling, during which club owner Lowell Pickett stopped by and everyone thanked everyone else. Pickett seemed pleased by the size of the crowd. Elling seemed surprised that the first set had been open curtain. When I suggested, “It’s because you’re the bomb,” he replied, “I’m a piece of cheese.”

Absent from both sets:  "Blue in Green," the limpid, luminous take on the Bill Evans tune. I asked Hobgood if we might hear it on Thursday. He said they hadn't yet worked through it with Raghavan and Owens (on the CD, John Patitucci plays bass; Terreon Gulley and Kobie Watkins share drumming duties). Also missing: "Come Running to Me." But most of the new CD was covered, and we heard plenty from earlier recordings, along with some still unrecorded songs. Based on past experience, I would be very surprised if Thursday's sets mirrored Wednesday's. But I'll let you know.

Kurt Elling and Laurence Hobgood

Photos by John Whiting


  1. We just saw Kurt Elling at Jazz Alley in Seattle, the second set (and he actually referred to doing more interesting second sets). I wasn't too familiar with him before the show but was blown away and am now looking around online for more. Thanks for this detailed info-packed review.

  2. Cynthia, the first time is a revelation, and he just gets better. Thanks for reading and writing.


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