Kurt Elling was one credit shy of graduating from the University of Chicago with a degree in divinity when he heard another calling.
The estimated 400 attending Saturday night's Jazz Arts Group concert were happy the singer took that call.
Elling crooned and scatted with JAG's Big Band and held the crowd at The Venue at The Hub in Fargo in his hand and rich tenor. His takeover wasn't hostile, but it was forceful as he grabbed at the band to punctuate horn blasts on his first song, an energetic and swinging "Luck Be a Lady.â€
Elling bears certain comparisons to Frank Sinatra (many male jazz singers after Ol' Blue Eyes do), but the 41-year-old holds his own. He slowed down for the second number, a smooth spin on the romantic "My One and Only.â€
Elling may have been the star, but he shared the spotlight, particularly with JAG guitarist Tom Carvell's subtle fretwork on "My One and Onlyâ€ and later with saxophonist Grant Larson.
Next to Elling, the brightest spot on the stage was his arranger/pianist, Laurence Hobgood, who particularly shined in the second set.
"Any time I have Laurence Hobgood with me, I have an instant 10-finger orchestra,â€ Elling said before "Say It.â€ The duet allowed the JAG Big Band to sit back, watch and smile. When the number ended, they were the first to applaud.
Elling showed impressive range, not only vocally, but also stylistically, ranging from Count Basie's bluesy "Going to Chicagoâ€ to emulating John Coltrane's sax lines on the sacred "Resolutionâ€ and some nimble scatting on Nat Cole's "Nature Boy.â€
The Jazz Arts Group seems conflicted about its move this season from the Fargo Theatre to The Venue, asking what attendees thought in a survey.
The downtown theater may offer more comfortable seats, especially on the floor, but the vibe at The Venue is more akin to a classic jazz nightclub. While the floor was set up with lines of stacked chairs, the couches and tables upstairs allowed patrons to relax a little more and even dance. The sound even seemed a little stronger upstairs.
Elling made the right decision moving from the Bible to jazz, and JAG made the right move to The Venue.
Most importantly, those who bought a ticket to Saturday's show made the right decision.