Kurt Elling blew in from Chicago on Saturday night, making his local debut at the Jazz Kitchen and putting substance to the claims of admirers that he's taking jazz vocalism into fresh territory. Whatever one thinks of the merit behind Grammy Awards in any category, being a nominee three times is almost more significant than winning once. This is just one of the music-business laurels draped on Elling's brow since he burst on the scene in the early '90s. In his first set here Saturday night, he made it clear he's willing to work for any accolades one audience at a time.
Backed by a loyal, resilient trio of pianist Laurence Hobgood, bassist Rob Amster and drummer Michael Raynor, Elling opened with his unorthodox arrangement of My Foolish Heart, which interpolates a poem by the Spanish mystic St. John of the Cross in a manner that turns out to be less bizarre than it sounds. He prefaced it with a long, noodling vocal rendition of a tenor-sax cadenza, complete with molasses-vibrato pedal tones, swoops, honks and creamy curlicues. That signaled how evenly Elling draws inspiration from instrumentalists as well as his vocalist predecessors. The song proper was treated to a modulation of moods, from hushed skepticism to all-out enthusiasm, and linked by such hypnotic devices as Hobgood's inside-the-piano repeated-note patterns and Raynor's mixture of brush and fingertip sonorities.
A wordsmith who's written insightfully about the Beat poets, Elling updates the influence with complex verbal overlays of jazz themes. The technique, called "vocalese," was masterfully displayed in Donald Byrd's Tanya Jean, going as far afield as allusions to Herbie Hancock and Hermann Hesse, among others, can take him. Novel approaches to standards, with Hobgood being credited for shaping the approach in full-fledged quartet terms, were typified in a delicate yet ardent Easy Living. The singer had more ironic fun with I Feel So Smoochy, taking it at a bouncy tempo and letting the mood get funky by yielding the spotlight to a lengthy, pungent Amster solo, then importing his hilariously descriptive Rent Party prose-poem before returning to the main theme.
Before closing the first set with a Latin-tempo Nature Boy, to which he contributed an exhilarating scat chorus, Elling led his band through a soulful Save Your Love for Me. He individualized the music while alluding to R&B-singer clichÃ©s. What makes Elling such a charismatic singer is this very ability to signal his influences and even embody them while giving a spontaneous, sometimes wild exhibition of nobody but Kurt Elling.