kurt elling is heavy, you dig?

Well, to join in on the all-Spoleto-all-the-Spoleto-time buzz, i'm gonna write a little bit about a show i went to see last night. It was a performance by my favorite singer...well, no...my favorite vocalist, Mr. Kurt Elling.

But first, for all non-Charlestonians: Spoleto is an early summer malady that seems to strike almost all natives here. Like the plot twist of a Gabriel Garcia Marquez short story, all locals, for the period of a few months walk around saying "SpoletoSpoletoSpoleto." When you ask someone, or try to find out what it is by looking in the newspaper or the web, you come up with a lot of comments on how wonderful this Spoleto is, but little else. When i came to house shop here last year about this time, Spoleto disease was in full force, with signs on every street corner announcing the onset. "Spoleto 2005!" they said. This year is the same--just with a different number.

Although this mostly benign illness seems to strike everyone, it appears to have the most effect on people that wear expensive sport coats and no ties--and small shoes, the kind they give you to wear at a suit fitting. Women's dress necklines tend to plunge. These particular people are, for a short while, struck with the urge to dock their sailboats and walk around downtown holding small plastic cups. I can only assume that Spoleto makes a person thirsty.

There's also a less high-falutin' strain for people that dress in t-shirts and shorts that's called Piccolo Spoleto. An interesting name given that both the clothes and the cups are bigger at Piccolo Spoleto events. Perhaps the size distinction refers to wallet size. For instance, those of us in the Piccolo section of Kurt's performance last night paid $15, whereas the pennyloafers paid up to $70.

Alright. Enough with the crap. Both Spoleto and Piccolo Spoleto--named for the Italian city--is an "arts and culture" festival. The reason it's hard to put a finger on it is because the damn thing is a huge, sprawling affair with theater and visual arts and jazz and classical music and discussion groups and on and on. The only real confusing thing about it to begin with is the use of the word Spoleto. I'm not concerned enough to look up the real information, but i think it has something to do with an Italian composer from Spoleto, Italy that liked Charleston and started an arts festival here 30 years ago. All in all, the whole thing really is impressive, with quite an egalitarian array of prices and entertainments, like the more successful days of Nashville's Summer Lights Festival (alas!), but spread out over the period of a month (and with a lot fewer rubber beer can holders.)

Kurt's performance was two sets: a first set of Frank Sinatra tunes, and a second where he did his own thing. Since i don't write reviews, or even read them really, i don't know how i should order things here, so i'll just say this: His backing band, The Chicago Jazz Ensemble, was top notch. The sound in the Gaillard Auditorium was really good, as was the PA reinforcement--tastefully done with little coloration of the band itself. I sat in two different locations for the two sets. Nosebleeds for the first set (nosebleed being a side effect of Piccolo Spoleto illness) and on the floor in front of the stage for the second set. As i correctly suspected, the older members of the pennyloafer bunch had been weakened by prolonged exposure and had to clear out for the second set, so i snuck in for a seat.

Kurt's vocals were mixed a little dark, so a lot of the words were muddled. I don't know if that was the fault of the soundguy, my two locations, or the fact that Elling doesn't usually perform with big bands. He seemed just a tad out of his element all night. But speaking of out-of-elements, i'm wondering if he wasn't given instructions to keep it kind of calm. Although i'd never suspect him of anything less than top notch professionalism, he did seem to banter quite a bit about "playing charts that keep you cats happy," and that he and the band would be back for a second set of "mostly positive, mostly happy tunes that you'll like." (i'm paraphrasing, by the way--do those belong in quotes?).

A highpoint for me was the perfomance of the Coltrane tune, Resolution. Kurt does a vocalise for 'Trane's melody line. As i only bought the cd last night--and again because of the dark vocal sound--i don't know what the added lyrics are. Still, it was a happening rendition. Special mention goes to the sax player who laid out a 'Trane-worthy solo. As i know nothing of the Chicago Jazz Ensemble i can't say whether they are stellar soloists, but this guy really did give it hell. While he played I was thinking about how exciting it must have been to see the real Coltrane play live--it gave me goosebumps.

For what it's worth, maybe there's something to my theory that the festival organizers told Elling to keep it simple. As i was walking out with...well, let me say this: as Elling started saying "thank you for coming tonight" and stuff over the band, the crowd was already headed for the doors. Did they think they were at a ballgame, or something? By the time the conductor presented the band and Lawrence Hobgood (Elling's fulltime bandmate and co-arranger), most everyone on the floor was gone. and i'm only talking about 60 seconds here between Kurt's goodnight and the final beat. I think that was a little rude. Still, as i was going to say, while we exited i eavesdropped on comments from the more healthy pennyloafers: "that's some set of pipes that guy has." " he sure can hold a note." and my favorite: "that was like Ella Fitzgerald singing to Miles Davis. What were all the noises he was making?" (For those unfamiliar with him, Kurt is kind of a newage scat singer. If you have the slightest musical inclination you're right along with him and his noises. )

After the gig i did something i rarely do and went into the lobby and bought his newest cd. I even stood in line and got him to sign it. I'm happy to report that Kurt is about my height. That's important because, like most folks, i compare myself to celebrity. (Kurt for instance is a year older than me and is the vice president of the organization that puts on the grammies. I, on the other hand, have read the word "vice-president" off the back of a cereal box--but, like i said--he's 39. I'm merely 38 and have a whole year before i must distinguish myself as much.)

Matter of fact, i'd say Kurt Elling is a good half inch shorter than i am.

Anyway, he graciously shook my hand, signed my cd and told me to "play it loud and disturb the neighbors." Was that perhaps another inoffensive slur on a rather tame crowd?


Anonymous said...

When will your stuff be on sale at these festivals? When can we look forward to a Biffle website selling his latest creation?

The Mom said...

Way to go, anonymous! Good idea. What do you say, Walter?

You inspired me to look up a cd of elling.

Walter said...

the mom:

i've been meaning to give you a few of his cds. what'd'ya look at? i bought "man in the air" last night. for lack of a better term it's very "pretty." (also, elling was a divinity student before going jazz full time (actually i think he was at us the same time my friend kenneth burns was) and this record is mostly non-dogmatic spiritual songs.)

i also have...uhh..."the messenger" and...i can't remember. those two are a little uneven for the un-initiated. lots of noise and seemingly spontaneous recitation. a lot more of the scat and vocalise-y stuff that i like though. this new one is almost, dare i say, pop.

i'm listening to it right now, however, and i'm tempted to say that it's his best record yet.

Walter said...

that was supposed to say "at UC," as in university of chicago, instead of "at us."

i've ruined the internet.

The Mom said...

Can't you go back into already posted comments and edit them? Or do you just ruin the internet when you make a typo?

So, which of those would you recommend my looking for? I haven't looked yet.

Matthew said...

you have so ruined the internet.

... and I'd just like to say that the jumble of letters at the bottom of the screen that I have to type in (to make sure I'm not some robot) spell a great word... omzazlo. omzazlo.

almost as cool as buzzwuzzo.

great. now I've ruined the internet.

Walter said...

the mom:

go to kurtelling.com. i think in the lyrics sections of the site you can listen to some songs, or snippets thereof.

matthew: (matthew?)

ahhh, buzzwuzzo. i remember him well.