Jazz vocalist Kurt Elling is on the repeat roster at The Dakota in downtown Minneapolis, where he graced the stage once again last Thursday the 13th, with two sold out sets the night before Valentine’s Day. The crowd was his usual staunchly dedicated over fifty following, hustling to their seats the moment the doors opened, and sending the server and front of house staff into an organizational tizzy. Being friends with one of the band members has it’s perks: Bypass the massive crowd awaiting entrance at the front door by entering through the side, and watch the stampede as an on-looker, instead of a participant.
Once the drinks had been served and the food ordered, everyone settled in, martinis in hand, (when in Rome) and awaited the flurry of sound.
If you’ve seen Elling perform in the past, you may be reassured to know that he has stayed faithful to the recipe and template that has kept his audiences at his feet for years. Even with a large gap between seeing an Elling performance (seven years in my case), one can still expect to see what has become so quintessentially unique about this jazz singer:
The man's voice is clearly virtuosic, flexible, and beyond able. His tone puts him in a different category than the crooner variety of modern jazz singers (read Michael Buble, perhaps Gregory Porter), which is part of his trademark – beauty can bend into ugly from time to time, but oh, doesn’t it actually make it all sound more wonderful? Some would call it artistry. But there is an unmistakable element of schtick in his set choice, delivery, and conversation between songs. Key to the way that he uses his music to interact with the crowd, the banter screams of a time when jazz was in it’s heyday, and audiences were flocking to be entertained by this music, and by the front men of the musicians that played it.
He started with a bang – a modern arrangement of the classic “Let's Fly Away.” Complete with raucous shifts in aggression, throwing the music in your face, just in case you were paying too close attention to your plate. It pumped your blood and got your foot tapping, if only for the first few minutes. A playground for each member of the band, no doubt, displaying their individual skill and virtuosity. His musicians are no slouches. (Would you expect anything less?) Xavier Davis on piano, John McClean on guitar, Clark Sommers on bass, and a last-minute fly-in of a drummer from Chicago in Christian Euman, when the weather that’s been beating the East Coast prevented the regularly scheduled Kendrick Scott from joining in.
The program was varied, and well-tailored, leaving a little something for every type of vocal jazz fan. A Portuguese number that changed tonalities as soon as your ears adjusted to the current one; a ballad that tapped into your own memories by way of his; a solo bass intro lasting several minutes, where Elling’s speech and Sommers’ strings danced together, intertwined in friendly banter. The man even beat boxed, trading ideas with his young drummer, displaying every last trick in his bag. The crowd was in his palm, and the music was in his soul, indicating that this act isn’t in jeopardy of disappearing any time soon.