Kurt Elling is an artist who thrives in the collaborative space. Recent albums with classical pianist Lang Lang, post-bop saxophonist Branford Marsalis and acapella vocalists The Swingles demonstrate his appetite for unconventional spaces to see where the music takes them. Viewed in this context, a venture into the marginalised arena of a ‘jazz radio drama’ about Chicagoan jazz singer Jack Lewis is a very Kurt Elling thing to do, not least because of the numerous collaborations required to pull it off.
Setting the scene for the premiere of The Big Blind, on-stage foley artist Jeff Ward asked for critical leniency as the cast hadn’t quite had as much time to prepare as they would like. Fortunately for everyone, it seemed that Dee Dee Bridgewater had been preparing all her life to play the villainess of the piece, Jack’s lover/manager/assailant Veronica Legrand. With tightly-wound curls bouncing on the frames of her diamond-tipped shades, Bridgewater both delivered her songs with supreme class and also inhabited the part with thoroughly convincing menace. She was fierce, deceptively sweet and had a complete grasp of the radio-play format (crystal-clear lines, acting towards the audience, subtle appearances on/off stage).
Musically speaking, some of the songs that have come to life through this production are keepers. The original ‘What if forever is forever’ gives Elling and Bridgewater that chance to duet —which is a real treat— while Eddie Freeman lends a gruff nobility to his numbers. Guy Barker’s underscore and arrangements (conducted by Guy, performed well by Ulysses Owens, Jr.’s New Century Big band) also leant the production necessary momentum when the script required a nudge in the right direction, as lines were swallowed or when exposition got in the way of theatrical pace.
Musicians often get irked when actors mimic their craft. Whether it’s Christopher Walken (not)playing the cello in A Late Quartet or Lola Kirke (not)conducting in Mozart in the Jungle, it can be frustrating when the core performance is diminished by inexperience in a parallel creative realm. The same is true here (albeit in reverse) and while there are some strong performances in The Big Blind, it is not yet the finished product. That said, Kurt has himself mentioned that this is a work in progress, and if they’re given more opportunities to perform, edit and rehearse then improvements will surely follow.
With a second performance at JALC tonight, they’ll get that opportunity for progress sooner than many. You can catch the live stream from 8pm EST here.