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Swyer Theatre @ The Egg
Albany, NY
April 22, 2007

By J Hunter

In order to see more than one jazz act on the same bill in the Capital Region, you normally have to wait for summer festivals like Freihofer's or Kingston. This is one of many reasons why Kurt Elling and Bill Charlap's joint appearance at the Swyer was so special. To have either of these great interpreters in the area would guarantee a great evening; to have them both on the same stage is why the theater was almost filled to capacity.

Charlap was swinging from the jump, driven by Kenny Washington's stellar brushwork and Steve LaSpina's heavy bass line. Washington made his bones with the Ray Brown Trio, so he knows a little deviation can radically change the color of any piece; jumping from brushes to sticks doubled the intensity of Gerry Mulligan's “Rocker”, and I loved his off-time keeping on the Cole Porter tune “All Through the Night.” LaSpina contributed terrific solos to “Put On a Happy Face” and the Bernstein/Comden/Green collaboration “It's Love”, but LaSpina's foundation work let Charlap and (to a lesser extent) Washington do what they do best.

Charlap leans into his solos like a sailor tacking a windjammer, and he makes the same impact with a few notes as he does with a fusillade. “It's Only a Paper Moon” became a sweet, subtle slow dance that only needed a mirror ball to be complete, while Irving Berlin's “The Best Thing for You” was 180-degrees different, leaping and jumping and filled with joy. The awesome closing medley from West Side Story maintained the play's drama as it stripped away the orchestral bombast, boiling it all down to what the musical is really about: Two people, deeply in love, in a world that says their love is impossible.

Although Elling did a phenomenal job connecting with the crowd at Albany Riverfront two years ago, I knew he would be even better in a more intimate setting, and I'm pleased to say I was right. Elling inhabits his songs, becoming each protagonist before our eyes. “This is me in college,” he quipped about the stood-up subject of Benny Carter's “Tight.” Elling's wild scat-speech excerpt from Jack Kerouac's On The Road was a story told by someone who had to be there when it all went down, and the medley of Porter's “Change Partners” and Jobim's “If You Never Come to Me” showed us one guy saying the same thing two different ways.

The only reason Elling wasn't the coolest frood onstage was because Willie Jones III is his drummer. Dressed in a black suit/shirt combo straight out of The Sopranos, Jones improved on Washington's less-is-more strategy, propelling the music forward with a singular style, while leaving the spotlight to others. Elling's tales are framed perfectly by Laurence Hobgood's expressive piano: He got his bossa on during Elling's treatment of Alan Pasqua's “And We Will Fly”, and painted an extra layer of romance onto another Jobim ballad, “Luisa.” Rob Amster seemed none the worse for wear for being largely supplanted on Elling's new disc Nightmoves (Concord Records, 2007) by über-bassist Christian McBride. Amster's lines were fat and juicy here, and he was an equal partner on “The Waking”, Elling's duet reinvention of Theodore Roethke's wistful poem.

There was no way Elling and Charlap could not play together, so they joined forces on a gorgeous encore of Jimmy van Heusen's “Darn That Dream.” Along with being a wonderful performance that brought tears to the eyes of some, the too-short summit showed Elling's creative link to the late Dexter Gordon. Elling told us earlier that “A New Body and Soul” was inspired by the legendary tenor player's take on the classic; I have the Gordon recording of “Darn That Dream”, and Elling's phrasing and overall technique - particularly in the lower register - is dead-on Dexter.

The bad part was this show left me ravenous for more of these two outstanding artists, both together and separately. Still, no matter how many great acts come our way this summer, an evening like this is a rare bird that will be remembered for a very long time.

J HUNTER is a former announcer/producer for radio stations in the Capital Region and the Bay Area, including KSJS/San Jose (where he was Assistant Music Director/Jazz programming), Q104 WQBK/Albany, and WSSV/Saratoga. He has also written music and theatre reviews for the Glens Falls Chronicle. He currently resides in Clifton Park.