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Concert Review: Kurt Elling Sings Sondheim and Styne

Hosted by Bill Charlap at the 92Y on Tuesday, July 21st, 2009

About.com Rating 3 Star Rating

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Jazz Singer Kurt Elling
© Chris Graythen / Getty Images
In his fifth summer as artistic director of the 92nd Street Y’s Jazz in July Festival, Bill Charlap, for one night only, brought Broadway to the Upper East Side. On Tuesday, July 21st, the spotlight was on the music of Stephen Sondheim and Jule Styne, two composers who have been linked ever since creating what many have called the greatest American musical: Gypsy.

Vocalist Elling Tops Strong Bill

Charlap’s normal trio of Peter and Kenny Washington was augmented for the evening with a horn section including trumpeter Brian Lynch, alto saxophonist Jimmy Greene, tenor saxophonist Jon Gordon, and multiple guest appearances by pianist Renee Rosnes, Bill Charlap’s accomplished wife. The focus that evening, however, was on Grammy-nominated vocalist Kurt Elling. In a night dedicated to the American musical, it should come as no surprise that Elling, the current king of vocal jazz, provided the evening’s most poignant moments.

Sondheim Poses a Difficult Challenge

Although the evening was an overall success, Elling and the instrumentalists had their fair share of difficulties with the Sondheim repertoire. Treating Sondheim’s emotionally complex songs as though were jazz heads is quite a heavy task, and one that is rarely completed successfully. The band struggled to incorporate improvisation, jazz phrasing, and group communication into the musical theater foundations. Solos tended to sound disjunct, as though they were not woven naturally into the arrangements.

At times, particularly early in the program, the instrumentalists seemed momentarily lost, and many of the lyrics on the faster selections were unrecognizable due to a combination of Elling’s unorthodox technical approach and what seemed to be an unfamiliarity with the material. In all fairness, some of Sondheim’s lyrics are simply absurd. It’s hard to imagine another jazz vocalist pulling them off any better. Too bad Mandy Patinkin wasn’t in town.

Christmas in July

Charlap produced almost all of the most noteworthy solos of the night. However, when hearing him play, it is hard not to feel suddenly transported to late December. By playing a vast majority of his melodic lines in the upper three octaves of the piano it’s hard to ignore the allusion to the signature sound of so many jazz Christmas albums. He may as well have been handing me a candy cane and a hot chocolate.

Although there was never any sense of malevolent competition between the husband and wife during their simultaneous piano performances, it seemed as though every time Rosnes played a great angular solo, Charlap would out do her by sprinkling a little more of that “Charlap Christmas dust” all over the concert hall.

Second Set Shines

If the first set was Christmas Eve, the second set resembled Christmas morning. Three of the four best performances of the night came in the second set, while the only gem of the first set was Sondheim’s “Not While I’m Around” (coincidentally arranged by Kurt Elling’s Chicago-based collaborator, Laurence Hobgood). The highlights of the second set included “Uptown, Downtown” (Sondheim), “Dance Only with Me” (Styne), and “Sorry Grateful” (Sondheim). These three songs felt the most completely realized by the ensemble as well as the most honestly presented by Elling.

Concept Concerts:

Overall, a great concept concert – something I would love to see more of in the future. Now, if we could only get jazz musicians to play Sondheim differently than they do Jerome Kern, we might have something.

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