Singer Kurt Elling has been receiving a great deal of attention lately, in part because heis a male jazz singer, somewhat of a rarity these days, and in part because he has been actively and aggressively marketed and promoted.
His appearance at the Jazz Bakery this week provides an opportunity to take a look past the hype and into the music. And Elling's first set Thursday night gave a clear picture of both his strengths and his weaknesses.
He clearly prides himself on his ability to write vocalese lyrics--words and phrases for existing jazz pieces and improvisations. Although it was difficult to decipher many of the lyrics, especially in the rapid-paced words attached to improvised passages by artists such as John Coltrane, Wayne Shorter and Freddie Hubbard, Elling melded words and music with some degree of skill.
That the lyrics rarely communicated in any sort of storytelling fashion--typical of the vocalese of, say, Jon Hendricks--was another issue, their primary interest apparently limited to random bits of philosophical observation.
Elling's ability to vocally execute the complex vocalese combinations of words and music was impressive; he often functioned as a fourth instrument in combination with the trio of pianist Laurence Hobgood. But his forays into spontaneous vocal improvisation were less effective.
Relying, in most passages, on repetitious riff-like patterns, he occasionally erupted into shouts and screams to produce a musical ambience closer to the alternative pop of Laurie Anderson than it was to jazz. It obviously worked for most of the fairly young audience (the Bakery was offering a special price to students) as a sort of adolescent venting of excess energy. As music, it simply abandoned creative values in favor of the lowest common denominator of physical expression.
Somewhere, beneath the manner and attitude, Elling may possess the capacity to emerge as an imaginative jazz artist, a fact that underscored his almost tender rendering of "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes." But his wild creative mood swings need to be focused into a much more centered musical maturity.
* Kurt Elling at the Jazz Bakery through Sunday. 3233 Helms Ave., Culver City; (310) 271-9039. $20 admission tonight at 8 and 9:30 and Sunday at 7 and 8:30 p.m.