Kurt Elling's dark, velvet blazer exemplified his stage persona to a tee; both being stylish, lush and form-fitted for any event.
When the renowned jazz vocalist took to the Old Town School concert stage, Friday evening, he faced his audience with a confident smile, acknowledged the balcony contingent and and eased his way into what would be an enthralling, diverse set of scat, vocalese, balladry, striking instrumentals and cutting-edge poetry.
"I'm ready. The piano still plays, the bass works," he said, coyly. Elling made his home in Chicago, before relocating to the east coast; honing his craft at Milt Trenier's and the Green Mill where he sat in on Ed Petersen's Monday night sets and met his future pianist and collaborator, Laurence Hobgood. But, most of the audience knows that already. His crowd is generally jam-packed with repeat customers.
He scatted his way through "Groovin' into the Night" before launching into the simmering "Dedicated to You", the title song from his last album; a tribute to Coltrane and Hartman. Elling made several wry comments about his frenetic touring schedule. He's a busy guy. Next stop would be the east coast, with an over-the-pond stop to Edinburgh in early March. The seasoned singer has received numerous awards by the Jazz Journalist's Association and has had every album in his discography nominated for a Grammy.
One of the more alluring moments was when Elling stood silently against the baby grand, seemingly in awe of his rhythm section, which included bass, percussion and guest guitarist. While many singers find it awkward to deal with those out-of-spotlight moments, this one simply becomes part of the audience. He was as entranced by the virtuosity as we were.
Hobgood's arrangements are as elegant as they are edgy. Pulverizing articulation, rapid modulations and gentle touch merge together as he tracks Elling's every move. Apparently, the decade-long partnership has enabled both performers to read each other with precision and surprising abandon.
Elling switched gears by crooning, "After the Love Has Gone" and then recited poetry by Sufi poet Rumi while his counterpart noodled in the background. "Golden Lady" was then given a sweet work-out and the introspective "Higher Ground" stretched the envelope further still.
Elling cites influences by Jon Hendricks, Frank Sinatra and Al Jarreau in terms of blues-swing, casual phrasing and technique, but he also found inspiration from the improvisational chops of Ella Fitzgerald and admires Louis Armstrong for "infusing singing with his own complete instrumentalist's consciousness."
Several tracks from his just released album, The Gate, were featured. The baritone's four-octave instrument swelled dreamily during "Norwegian Wood" and his penultimate note resembled that of a Tuvan throat singer. Such calisthenics were in full force this night; Elling's fluency covers all bases. Another tune, Matte Kudasai, also from the new release, touched on more cosmic sensibilities.
The creative gate was flung wide open this evening, and judging by the standing ovations, the satisfied audience truly hopes that Kurt Elling, after his extensive travels, will hurry home.