Published Jun 30, 2011Like most jazz fests, the Saskatchewan Jazz Festival balances its namesake music with other genres. However, the historic Broadway Theatre was the site of some of the most serious capital "J" jazz of the ten-day event. Vocalist Kurt Elling and pianist Robert Glasper were a well-matched double bill for the soft-seat crowd.
Glasper's set was kind of hilarious. He began his remarks to the crowd by repeatedly mispronouncing Saskatoon as "Sack-a-toon," which could have started things off on the wrong foot but the crowd laughed it off. Things got stranger from there. It seemed as though he and the band hadn't decided on a set list, and maybe two minutes of onstage negotiation preceded the first song. During that time, Glasper played snatches of Billy Joel's "Piano Man" and Bruce Hornsby's "The Way It Is" and other sideways-relevant MOR classics, which met with laughter. Then they got down to business.
Glasper is still riding his two-year-old disc Double Booked, and about half the set was drawn from it. Comparisons are not unfairly made between Glasper and Herbie Hancock, in the sense that both are identified with outward-bound post-bop. However, Glasper never leaves harmonies hanging; there's almost always a sense of reassurance in his playing that keeps it tethered to the ground.
Bassist Derrick Hodge and drummer Mark Colenburg stayed tightly focused at all times. Colenburg, in particular, isn't flashy with the metal on his kit; sometimes he would only stick to rim shots for extended stretches. The hip-hop undercurrent for which Glasper is known for was less evident with this band, but there were a few self-consciously loopable moments.
But for epic self-consciousness, Elling had him beat. He looks and acts the alpha male jazz singer image in post-Sinatra mode. Elling is full of cocky confidence onstage with his slicked back hair, casual suit and wry banter. Put another ten years on Michael Bublé, and maybe he will come across the same way. But vocally, Elling is more interesting. His mellifluous voice has a hint of sandpaper, and he also gets more experimental with lyrics and with his improvisational style. He is not an introspective singer; he is a stylist.
When Elling hit on songs that suit his talents, like the Beatles' "Norwegian Wood" and Joe Jackson's "Stepping Out," he created radically different, spacious versions. Also effective was his microphone technique, wherein he would hold a note and draw the mic back and forth to create an echo effect, or rub the mic on his lapel to create a muffled yet percussive sound.
And despite a selection of covers, Elling was at his best on his Mose Allison-like hipster originals, such as "Those Clouds Are Heavy, You Dig?" Still, closing off with an excellent, soulful version of Stevie Wonder's "Golden Lady," the good outweighed the schtick.