We attended two shows at the Bellevue Jazz Festival last night. First was Kurt Elling in the small (about 400 seat theater) in the Meydenbauer Center in the heart of Bellevue. This festival was a Bellevue tradition for many years before it fell apart and was brought back from the dead two years ago. Our first show was Kurt Elling and a trio of instrumentlists including new drummer Ulysses Owens, Jr., a bassist and his long time collaborator, pianist Laurence Hobgood. Sadly, I was disappointed in Elling from the outset and my mind was not changed as the evening went along. If first impressions count, and they do with me, Elling's appearance on stage reminded me of a bad Joe Piscopo immitation of Sinatra on Saturday Night Live. His hair was slicked back, his smarmy speaking style and his swaggering around the stage left me flat. Then he began singing. He may be considered the male jazz singer of our time as quoted in a lot of his news releases, but that label may owe itself more to the fact that there is so little competition out there right now. His voice had an edge to it that seemed to display vocal damage. He also had great difficulty in maintaining pitch. Jazzers are known to stretch and play all around the notes in a tune, but too often he never quite returned to where he needed to go. I came home and listened to some of his recordings (I don't own any) on-line and discovered the same problem. He announced that he is about to release a recording of standards along the lines of Coltrane and Hartman and then sang one of my favorite Coltrane/Hartman collaborations, Dedicated to You. This ballad could not be sung better than Hartman does it and Elling only served to prove it with his over the top high speed performance. The band took off like a jackrabbit with the drummer laying down a beat that Elling followed rendering this beautiful ballad little more than a sprint to the finish. No finesse, no dedication to anybody and especially no romance.
So I have to ask what it is people see in this artist. I hope someone can explain it to me because I just don't see it. I think Elling was actually the weakest link in this performance. I loved pianist Laurence Hobgood's playing as well as that of drummer Owens. The bassist was a solid player despite being buried in the charts all evening (he is not the regular bassist). I could have listened to this trio all evening and did during the interludes when Elling slinked off to one side and let them play.
At nine we walked across the lobby to the cavernous convention hall to hear Dianne Reeves. This enormous hall is the place where conventions are held and is no place for concerts so I was horribly disappointed in the venue. But thankfully my disappointment in the evening ended there. Guitarists Russell Malone and Romero Lubambo were introduced first and they took the stage playing a duet that brought the house down. Marvelous playing. Lubambo played the acoustic guitar while Malone was on electric. They intertwined their sound beautifully, playing off each others riffs, toying with each other, teasing, smiling at each other as if they were just playing a friendly game and the audience was delighted at the opportunity to surreptitiously listen in on the game. Dianne Reeves appearance on stage was magical. She of course already arrived with the reputation for having performed the magical music on the George Clooney film Good Night and Good Luck. She sat on an elevated stool between the two guitarists and launched right into her set. I had not heard anything by Dianne Reeves other than her performance in the Clooney film and was anxious to hear what she sounded like performing other styles. From the first notes out of her mouth I was in love! The warmth and richness of her vocals overwhelmed me. The range, the effortless way she flipped into her upper register and back, dancing and playing with the notes like they were weightless clouds. I am smitten. The interplay between her and the guitarists was magical as well. I am a solid fan of this lady and look forward to the next time our paths cross.