Kurt Elling at Symphony Center

n A profile of a Rockford native and Grammy Award Winner

On Saturday, Aug. 23, Chicago got a little taste of Rockford at the Symphony Center when Kurt Elling performed with Stefon Harris and the Laurence Hobgood Trio. Opening act was a performance by Andy Bey on vocals and piano, with Paul Meyers (guitar), Kiyoshi Kitagawa (bass) and Vito Lesczak (drums). Unfortunately, when the announcer welcomed Elling to the stage, he called out “Welcome Chicago’s own, Mr. Kurt Elling!” and our group’s shouts of “Go, Rockford!” were drowned out by the room’s resounding applauds and hoots. I was hoping that Elling might comment on his original background a little, but no such luck.

Well, if Rockford doesn’t appreciate their native star, Chicago certainly does. Elling’s songs elicited enthusiastic accolades from every audience member, and it cannot be denied that the man has a meaty and moving voice. Although straying a little from traditional jazz vocals and moving more toward slightly New Age-poetic stuff, his scat was as amazing as ever.

At times, however, his lyrics and intonation verged on a William Shatner parody as he kept referring to the “freeing of minds, baby” and waggling his hands around and other such beatnik clichés. A few audience members giggled uncontrollably during such performances.

However, his vocal control and growling melodic style definitely recompensed those listeners. Elling also sang Grover Washington’s great hit “In The Winelight” and surprisingly enough, The Association’s “Never My Love,” adding to the many dimensions and versatility of his performance.

Many times, Elling took his solo as all other musicians strive to do, in extended improvisation and poignant enunciation. To some, his work sounded like “just practicing” as one audience member commented, but to this listener, his break down was the highlight of the concert.

Elling manipulated not only his vocal cords but also the microphone, cupping his hands around the head while vibrating his throat, with the end result being the sound of a multi-chromatic didgeridoo. In contrast, he also scatted with precise and careful eloquence, melodic and tasteful. When he eventually took a breath and ended his piece, the entire Symphony Center sent up a resounding sigh of admiration and pleasure in his performance.

Elling performed the concert to promote his latest album, Man in the Air, which is a tribute to and musical description of saxophonist Wayne Shorter. Shorter’s influence was cited by Elling at his performance, and the song “Man in the Air” made a lot more sense after he described the inspiration derived from the musical wizard.

Elling has put lyrics to music by some of the most challenging songs by the most well-respected jazz musicians in the 20th century. Herbie Hancock (before he sold violins on QVC), John Coltrane, Shorter, and Pat Metheny have all made compositions that are now on Elling’s singing repertoire. He has also performed with some of the best, accompanied by Paul Wertico, Stefon Harris and Brad Wheeler on the album, as well as the Laurence Hobgood trio. Harris was featured at the performance, and his work on the marimba was as good and fresh as Elling hailed it.

The audience was prepared for an evening of vocal jazz with an opening performance by Andy Bey. His voice, as the announcer commented that night, is one that you won’t forget. Rich, smooth and subtle, Bey sang standards and originals that made the outside world shut down while we were listening to him. He had some weird breathing going in between the notes—sort of like an emphysema cough—which distracted listeners momentarily until he continued singing, but that was the only complaint I had. His presence was impressive, and he carried an air of calmness and confidence that filled the Symphony hall and emphasized the effect of his music.

Both Elling and Bey, highlighted by the traditional as opposed to the newer sounds, gave a performance that will not be forgotten by Chicagoans. Although nobody there knew it, Elling “done us proud” here in Rockford, and that was good enough for me. Who cares if they think he’s a Chicago star? I know, he knows and everyone else here knows that he was bred in this big little city that we call home. He’s more famous there, anyway.

Pick up a copy of Man in the Air, and enjoy yet another result of a native that this town has pushed out into the world.

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