Nearly two years ago, Nate Chinen wrote in his column "The Gigâ€ that Kurt Elling was "the most influential jazz vocalist of our time,â€ a statement so absolute that it triggered an all-out war in the comments section. One non-fan opined that Elling was nothing less than "a narcissistic, hepcat blowhard, and his performances are pretentious, overinflated, overrated, and downright silly.â€
But love him or leave him, Elling can't be denied: his popularity shows no sign of abating more than 15 years after his recording debut, and a proliferation of similarly inclined male vocalists emerging in recent years would seem to bear out Chinen's bold declaration. In the first set of a six-night/12-show run at Manhattan's Birdland, each evening featuring a different guest artist (on this night, saxophonist Miguel ZÃ©non), Elling reaffirmed why he's attained mainstream success: His bravura performance, supported by Denmark's Klüvers Big Band, was a thriller.
Elling looks the part of the classic jazz singer: Handsomely sculpted, elegantly attired and coiffed, debonair, confident and engaged, he owns the stage. Anything but a casual crooner, he commands attention; seemingly minute details of a song become exaggerated in his hands and he draws the listener in, closely. Whether borrowing a Songbook standard, adapting a rock-era number or introducing an original, Elling burrows to the heart of a song and rides it high; many singers act out a lyric but Elling wears it in the smiles and grimaces of his nearly 44-year-old face. Much like the less-gifted Harry Connick Jr. before him, Elling relishes the role of post-Sinatra: His art is clearly not born of his time yet he brings to it an indisputably contemporary patina.
Opening with his interpretation of Joe Jackson's "Steppin' Out,â€ from his 2011 Concord Jazz release The Gate, Elling's adaptive skills were in full bloom from the onset. He clearly relished teaming with a large ensemble (which included his own rhythm section augmenting the Danes). The format opened Elling up to additional dynamic range, but also allowed him to defer some of the attention: With each solo turn by a musician, Elling took the opportunity to leave the spotlight, sit on a stool and soak in the sound.
Which isn't to say he didn't work hardâ€”the beads of sweat were well earned during the uptempo numbers and the ballads required intense concentration on his part. In "The Waking,â€ a song from his 2007 Nightmoves album that here featured only Elling and bassist Clark Sommers, Elling's vocal acrobaticsâ€”pliable glissandos and shifts from baritone to tenor to flirtations with falsettoâ€”were often breathtaking. His scatting, effortlessly eased into from a lyrical passage, often bordered on the exotic and his timing and enunciation were impeccable. But technique was only part of the appeal: In Rodgers and Hart's "You Are Too Beautiful,â€ the first tune featuring ZÃ©non, Elling made every word count, and when the saxophone took its turn, ZÃ©non knew to maintain the mood of the vocal: melodic and swinging, edgy but never over-extended. ZÃ©non, like Elling, values precision and control but not at the expense of emotion; he fit in as if he'd already toured with the band for months.
While Elling did, of course, draw from the past for material (Van Heusen/Cahn's "All the Way,â€ Cole Porter's "In the Still of the Nightâ€), a few of the tunes, he explained, were "futureâ€ ones, intended for a musical he is in the process of writing. Of those, the most promising was "All Points West.â€ Instructing his musical director and pianist for the first part of the set, Laurence Hobgood, to "play some art,â€ Elling unveiled the tale of "a young woman being tossed aside.â€ During a particularly bluesy piano solo, Elling sat down, grabbed a small paper fan and cooled himself off. By the end of the 75-minute show, which wrapped with a smooth but still funky take on Stevie Wonder's "Golden Ladyâ€ (from the new album) and an authoritative encore of "My Foolish Heart," which appeared on Elling's 2000 Live in Chicago album, a roomful of admirers was ready to do the same. Pretentious, overinflated, overrated and downright silly were not the adjectives on patrons' lips as they exited.