Tuesday, February 15, 2011

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

Who: Kurt Elling, voice; Laurence Hobgood, piano; Harish Raghavan, bass; Ulysses Owens Jr., drums; John McLean, guitar • Where: Dakota • When: Thursday, February 10, 2011

I didn't anticipate that Kurt Elling and his quartet would perform essentially the same sets on the second night of their Dakota stay as on their first. But they probably didn't anticipate that some people would attend all four sets. Elling gave me the heads-up about the setlists before the night began, when he passed by my table after greeting his former classmates from Gustavus Adolphus, whom I happened to sit down beside. "We'll play different notes, but not that different sets," he said. "Hope that's okay with you." 

Of course it was. It's jazz, so even identical sets are never the same.

Owens, Raghavan, Elling, Hobgood


"Moonlight Serenade"

"Steppin' Out." Elling tells the crowd that the title of his new CD, The Gate, is a reference to "swings like a gate." (Is he quoting "Papa Loves Mambo"?) Partway through his piano solo, Hobgood quotes "More" ("More than the greatest love the world has known/This is the love I give to you alone"). At least, I think he does. I'm very surprised.

Does anyone know what the cover image of The Gate is, and can someone explain its significance? This is only the second Elling CD that doesn't feature an image of Elling. (The first was The Messenger, 1997).

"Dedicated to You." On the CD, the ETHEL string quartet plays pizzicato. In live performance, Hobgood plays the same notes as piano chords. Really nice either way. 

"Samurai Cowboy." Raghavan takes a long solo on bass.

"Norwegian Wood." I enjoy hearing Elling with a guitarist (John McLean) who rocks out. I like how Elling mixes things up, keeping his core group but adding other artists: vibes player Stefon Harris in Chicago (for the Symphony Place debut of Man in the Air); the marvelous vocalist Nancy King in New York City (for a Valentine's Day show in the Allen Room); accordionist Richard Galliano last year in the Allen Room; ETHEL and saxophonist Ernie Watts on Dedicated to You. And the occasional big band.

At this point in the set, he introduces something new: a reading of Robert Bly's translation of Rumi's poem "The Edge of the Roof." A few lines:

I don't like it here. I want to go back.
According to the old Knowers,
if you're absent from the one you love,
even for one second, that ruins the whole thing.

There must be someone...just to find
one sign of the other world in this town
would be enough.

It was a lovely nod to poetry, with which Elling is very familiar, and also to Bly, a great American poet. I'm guessing that Elling became acquainted with Bly while a student at Gustavus (if not earlier, growing up in Chicago). It's hard to read contemporary poetry, especially in the Midwest, without encountering Bly and falling under his spell.

"Matte Kudasai" seems even more poetic following the Bly poem.

"Golden Lady." Owens takes a drum solo to start; Elling has a scatting dialogue with McLean. And he tells us that the next time he performs in Minneapolis, he'll be at Orchestra Hall. (That concert hasn't yet been officially announced, but close enough; the press release drops the next day. Elling will share a bill on Saturday, February 18, with Lizz Wright.)

The second variation in the setlist is an encore, something we did not get last night.

"Save Your Love for Me" (not yet recorded, at least not officially; there's a bootleg recording on YouTube). I don't know that I've ever heard Elling sing it before. It's a soulful, bluesy treat.

Elling's wife, Jennifer, and their young daughter, Luiza, are in the house tonight. Between sets, Luiza walks around with her father trailing after. I mention that I first saw her at Birdland when she was a baby. "She's still running things," Elling says. 


I have fastened my seatbelt for "Tanya Jean," the opener of last night's second set. But instead, Elling starts with one of his signature songs:

"My Foolish Heart" (from This Time It's Love, 1998; also recorded on Live in Chicago, 2000, and with the Bob Mintzer Big Band on Live at MCG, 2004). When Elling performs this song, he adds a long, dreamy, dramatic middle section in which he sings a poem. For a time, it was "The Dark Night" by 16th-century Christian mystic St. John of the Cross, but the poem he now sings is "The Moon Was Once a Moth" by 8th-century Sufi saint Rabia of Basra. It would be interesting to know why he prefers the latter. Is it more singable? Does he like the story/message better? Whichever one he chooses, it completely transforms the song and the mood of the room. Tonight he ends on a long (very long) high note that fades like the sparks in the poem. A tremendous performance. ("Way to open the show!" exclaims a friend seated beside me.) 

"Nighttown, Lady Bright." That voice! Like last night, something is happening in the second set. The energy is different, more electric. 

"Estaté." When Elling sings Jon Hendricks' lyrics, it's like Yo Yo Ma playing Bach on his cello. McLean takes a gorgeous solo. Yes, we heard this song last night, but tonight it opens like a flower. 

"After the Love Is Gone." Such pain and yearning! It's almost unbearable. 

"The Waking."  (The order of "After the Love Is Gone" and "The Waking" has been switched since last night.) Before beginning, Elling says, "If you're going to play 220 nights on the road in 2011, you'd better like what you sing." And you'd better pick good songs, and be able to sing them in good arrangements backed by a good band. Sometimes "The Waking" is just voice and bass; tonight Owens puts his hands on his drums, adding quiet beats on the skins and the rims. Elling takes his time with the ending, repeating the first line, playing with it, trying out different ways of singing it, at different levels. 

Next, the easy banter that eventually leads into "Late Night Willie." It's warm and funny. "Even the people who are lazy people are walking their dogs and suddenly there's a pothole and they're in a jazz club.... Jazz needs good Samaritans now.... the world has got to keep moving, even when the jazz people are asleep at 11 in the morning." Elling has the bit about "the devil pulling at the back of your coat" down to an art. It's very endearing.

"Late Night Willie." Groovy and funky. Tonight, this song officially ends the set.

"Higher Vibe" is an encore, minus last night's distracting sound effect, plus a searing solo by McLean. 

It's been an astonishing night, but the crowd is not yet ready to let Elling go. He returns to the stage alone for an a cappella version of "I Can't Get Started," singing the first line or two ("I've been around the world in a plane..."), then scatting the rest while miming playing the saxophone. I'm reminded of Bettye Lavette's a cappella turn on Sinead O'Connor's "I Do Not Want What I Have Not Got." This type of performance, courageous and daring, is a great and humbling gift from an artist to an audience. 

And now it's really over. The buzz is already beginning about how this was one of the all-time great Elling sets.

Elling hangs out after, greeting people and taking questions. I say hi to the Gusties (Gustavus Adolphus alums) I sat near during the first set (they stuck around for the second, too) and learn that they all sang in choir with Elling and one was his former roommate. They think he's swell but insist they could all be just as famous if they wanted to, and hint at having tapes of a young Elling in his college days. Money is exchanged. (Not.) They're a handsome group, jovial, joshing, and sincerely proud of Elling, who claims he would go into battle with any of them.

I speak briefly with a Dakota staff member on the way out. "I didn't get the whole Kurt Elling thing until tonight," she says. "Now I do." She looks a bit dazed.

On the street outside the lobby doors, the tour bus is heating up. Next stop: Chicago. 

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