By Dan Emerson
Two-time Grammy winner Kurt Elling is renowned for his formidable vocal instrument which made him an ideal choice to sing and swing with the world-class JazzMN Orchestra at Crooners in Fridley, Minn. on Sunday, October 23. Given the problematic economics of big band music in the modern era, singers don’t get many opportunities to perform with full orchestras, and Elling was up to the challenge. Elling filled the role as a replacement the late multi-instrumental wizard and vocalist Joey DeFrancesco, who had been scheduled to perform, until his sudden death in August.
JazzMN, Inc., a 501(c)3 nonprofit corporation, was formed 20 years ago by Dr. Douglas Snapp with the mission to “promote, preserve and perpetuate America’s indigenous art music, jazz”. Since its inception, the JazzMN Orchestra has presented more than 70 concerts in its main series with dozens of additional performances at jazz and art festivals around the Twin Cities. The music performed by the JazzMN Orchestra ranges from the earliest days of the genre, through contemporary and commissioned works by today’s composers. Snapp retired from the position in 2019 and was succeeded by trombonist-composer J.C. Sanford. The band was doing four concerts a year, up until the pandemic. In June, Sanford left; Saxophonist Pete Whitman is filling the acting Music Director role for the Fall 2022 concerts. Vocalist-pianist Andrew Walesch, a JazzMN board member for six years, is handling the programming.
Before the show with Elling, the orchestra’s most recent previous concert was in June at the Twin Cities Jazz festival. After DeFrancesco’s unexpected passing, Elling “was one of the first people I thought of” to take his place, said Walesch. From the perspective of a fellow vocalist, Walesch considers Elling “a musical chameleon who is so adept at honoring the American songbook and singing it the way it was written, being true to the songwriters and tradition. But he also knows how to take chances with a song and ‘mess around.’ He’s really one of a kind. There have been a lot of great improvisers over the last century, but very few of them are also consummate singers. His voice has that ‘bourbon-aged’ roughness but is still silky smooth.”
Elling flew in Sunday morning and was was able to squeeze in two rehearsals with the orchestra on Sunday, before the two, 90-minute shows at 3 p.m. and 6 p.m. Before bringing Elling onstage for the second show, the band opened with “Groovin’ Hard,” a bluesy, post-bop piece, arranged by Don Menza for Buddy Rich, spotlighting the baritone sax of Brian Handeland. They followed that with Thad Jones’ “Second Race,” begun with an extended bass solo by Graydon Peterson. As a tribute to DeFrancesco, the warmup also featured of one of his compositions, “Soul Perspective,” from the organist’s recorded finale, the album In the Key of the Universe. The band played an arrangement prepared by DeFrancesco’s wife, Gloria DeFrancesco. “Soul Perspective” featured some Wes Montgomery-style octave soloing by JazzMN guitarist Chris Olson.
The variety of songs chosen for Elling’s show with the orchestra was an effective way to show his vocal versatility. One was Joe Jackson’s 1980s top 40 hit “Steppin’ Out,” with a swing-conversant melody and lyrical vibe well suited to Elling’s persona. There was also a seldom-heard Duke Ellington ballad, “I Like the Sun,” then a stompin’ Ellington piece originally recorded as an instrumental, with lyrics added by Elling, “Tootie for Cootie” (Ellington band trumpeter Cootie Williams). Elling led the way through a funky, blues-walk style arrangement by Benny Carter on “I Cant Give You Anything But love” which featured a bluesy piano solo by Mary Louise Knutson. “My Foolish Heart’ was a good showcase for his malleable, melismatic way with a melody and arrangement, and his intentional approach to every syllable of a lyric – sometimes his own lyrics added to an instrumental.
The ragged sports cliché about always giving 110 percent could be applied to Elling’s singing. He never seems to coast, and attacks every song as if he’s determined to supersede previous versions by other vocalists. And his acrobatic scat signing always seems rhythmically perfect even at the most challenging tempos and scalar leaps. His phrasing is consistently surprising and he’s a musical tightrope walker who never seems to falter. Some shape-shifting arrangements helped freshen up well-traveled standards like “My Foolish Heart” and “Nature Boy,” the latter starting with the usual ballad treatment and then shifting into a samba-like tempo. The orchestra made the same kind of tempo shift on “My Foolish Heart.” The familiar Count Basie vehicle “Little Darlin’” featured sonorous horn harmonies, bluesy interjections from Knutson, and plenty of melismatic riffing by Elling. The orchestra’s lead trombomist, Scott Agster, shared the spotlight as a soloist.
Under Whitman’s direction, orchestra members at Crooners included Brian Grivna, lead alto; Lucia Sarmiento, second alto; Pete Whitman, first tenor sax; Stephanie Wieseler, second tenor; Brian Handleland, baritone sax; Scott Agster, lead trombone; Dave Graf, second trombone; Matt Echols, third trombone; Wade Clark, bass trombone; Bob Halgrimson, lead trumpet; Adam Rossmiller, second trumpet; Riley Helgeson, third trumpet; Jake Baldwin, fourth trumpet; Mary Louise Knutson, piano; Chris Olson, guitar; Graydon Peterson, bass; and Ben Ehrlich, drums.
JazzMN’s next concert will be a “Swinging in the Season” holiday show, December 20 at the Dakota (tickets on sale at www.dakotacooks.com). The vocalists will be Walesch, Jearlyn Steele and Ginger Commodore.
Dan Emerson is a freelance writer and musician.