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October 20, 1998


Jeff Putterman, host of Jazzonia every Saturday night on KABF 88.3FM

Little Rock jazz fans are big on singer Kurt Elling. Back in 1996, at the now legendary three-day Wildwood Jazz Festival (which marked the "birth" of the Cypress Jazz Associates) a relatively unknown Elling worked his vocal magic. By the end of his set, he had the crowd literally leaping from its seats. His performance then was so powerful that after the show one novice confided in me: "Now I know why you guys like jazz so much."

Thursday Oct. 1, 1998, at the Stella Boyle Smith concert hall at UALR, the Cypress Jazz Associates again brought Kurt Elling to Little Rock. This time the audience was more familiar with him. After all, Kurt now has three Blue Note CDs under his belt and has already won a Grammy award and several more nominations. He sits at the top of the male vocalist category in many jazz magazine polls. So the attendees had heard him sing, and knew about Kurt, his trio, and his music. But Elling did it again. Proving that his talent for improvisation, energy and wit have yet to be properly captured in digitized form, Kurt again "knocked out" the large and appreciative audience.

Backed by long time partner Lawrence Hobgood on piano, Rob Amster on bass, and Michael Raynor on drums, Elling showed why he has quickly become regarded as one of the top male vocalists in jazz. His stage persona is part smooth crooner, part beat hipster, and part bebop scat man. Mixed, I might add, with an intellectual's playful use of ironic musical and literary allusions. Although he carefully caresses soulful ballads, to call him a singer belittles his style. And though he scats, to characterize him as a bebop vocalist, ignores his use of "vocalese." Rather Elling, as he proved in Little Rock, is an accomplished a musician who "plays" his voice. And the way he reinterprets and reinvigorates old tunes--playing with tempo, harmony, and phrasing while keeping unerringly swinging time and marking the versions as "his," Elling demonstrates that he is a "Jazz" singer as well.

This was obvious early on in the show. After Elling's trio warmed up with a lyrical "You, the Night and the Music," he took the stage, "holding" a saxophone. Soloing, he vocalized a slow introduction to "I Can't Get Started," then "played" the rest of the song. It was, both vocally and musically, a refreshing version of that old tune. He followed this up, ably accompanied by the trio, with a version of "April in Paris" similar to that on his second CD The Messenger. However this live version included both straight ahead singing, in his clear assured voice, and searing hot scatting. After that, Elling had the audience in his hands.

He followed with a touching performance of "Too Young to Go Steady," from his latest CD This Time It's Love. Sung as a straight ballad, Elling's voice and the backing of the trio gave the tune a gravity the teenaged persona would have lacked. That, again, is the sign of a true jazz singer, one who can sing the same old words but imbue them with a new, fresh meaning.

Holding himself to that level of performance, Elling interrupted his next tune, "I Feel So Smoochie," with a beat/bop recitation of a hipster's rent party. The audience had a hard time keeping up with some of the slang, but Elling did a good job of signaling with his body and face the more humorous and touching passages. He followed "Smoochie" with "Freddie's Yen for Jen," an example of his vocalese. Taking the music of Freddie Hubbard's "Delphia" as the melody, Elling added his own words. Although it was Hubbard's tune, Elling made it his own song, as the attentive, sympathetic trio stayed right with him through sure changes of tempo and dynamics.

After a short break (during which Cypress Jazz Associates classily treated the audience to soft drinks and iced tea) Elling returned for a second set. This featured mainly love songs from his last CD, "Tanya Jean," "Where I Belong," "Sugar Lips" and "All is Quiet" (a duet with Hobgood that Elling recently recorded as a guest for another band). A rousing encore of his scat version of Jimmy Heath's "Gingerbread Boy" left the audience again on its feet. The "buzz" in the lobby after the show indicated that Elling and his trio were greatly admired and appreciated.

Wholehearted thank you for yet another night of great music from Little Rock's jazz fans to the Kurt Elling group, UALR, and the Cypress Jazz Associates. Bravo all!

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