Kurt Elling is a jazz singer whose approach is too cerebral to be constrained by that label.
Indeed, his inventive vocals - with traces of Jon Hendricks' scats and Al Jarreau's tone - challenge listeners to pay attention lest they fall behind as he dissects and re-creates jazz standards.
The Da Camera of Houston audience was treated to Elling's unique style Saturday at the Wortham Theater Center in the opening program of the fall jazz series. Judging by the enthusiastic applause during the nearly two-hour set, Elling captured the locals' hearts from the opening scat to the closing "thank you."
The performance originally was to have featured Elling and vibraphonist extraordinaire Stefon Harris.
But the last-minute addition of bassist Rob Amster afforded the pair a rhythmic layer that allowed both artists to improvise uninhibitedly throughout the 10-song set, encore included.
Harris appeared on Elling's most recent album, Man in the Air, but one hardly could tell that this was their first live collaboration, so impeccable were the timing and interplay. The show's opening McCoy Tyner composition allowed Elling to display his imaginative scat style, highlighted by an energetic Harris solo (he has no contemporary peer on the vibes).
Elling's lyrical ability was evident on Alone and I, a Herbie Hancock composition re-formed with lyrics. Elling's meticulous phrasing and pacing were things of beauty.
Harris' playing signaled the Da Camera crowd that a delightful swing-fest was in the offing.
On Gershwin's Summertime, Harris was at his best, simultaneously playing the vibes and the marimba. The tonal mix bordered on the hypnotic.
A whimsical rendition of Steve Miller's Space Cowboy by Elling and Amster added levity to the show - and an invitation to the audience to sing along on the chorus. Elling's impression of the steel guitar was laugh-out-loud funny.
The show's closer was Duke Ellington's Take the A Train. Amster's string pops and slaps to the bass, with Elling and Harris calling and responding, added a touch of funk to the train. Elling's deft phasing on the show's encore, Hoagy Carmichael's Stardust, sent listeners home knowing they had just witnessed a tour de force of musicality.
One can only hope that the rest of Da Camera's jazz series will be this good.