Jazz singers were out of vogue for a while, perhaps because the focus on trumpeter Wynton Marsalis and the young lions who emerged in his wake put the emphasis on instrumentals. But in recent years, vocals have regained their place in the music.
Any discussion of putting an improvisational spin on a lyric would certainly include Dianne Reeves, Diana Krall and Gretchen Parlato. As for their male counterparts, Jamie Cullum, Harry Connick Jr. and Bobby McFerrin immediately come to mind.
But arguably, the artist who's done the most to reinvent jazz singing for modern times is Kurt Elling, who begins a four-night engagement Wednesday at Jazz at the Bistro.
"A lot of work goes into it," says Elling, who emerged from the Chicago jazz scene. His 2009 release, "Dedicated to You: Kurt Elling Sings the Music of Coltrane and Hartman," won a Grammy for best jazz vocal album.
"But most of it is intuitive work," he says. "And ultimately, the only resource that I have is my intuition."
At the Bistro, Elling will share the stage with pianist Laurence Hobgood, guitarist John McLean, bassist Clark Sommers and drummer Jared Schonig. Elling and his band are likely to perform some of the songs from his latest album, "The Gate." The disc was produced by Don Was, who has worked with artists from the Rolling Stones to Bonnie Raitt.
"When he came on as a collaborator, certain things came more to the fore because of his expertise in nonjazz idioms," Elling says.
It's not often that the Beatles' "Norwegian Wood" and King Crimson's "Matte Kudasai" have been presented in a jazz context, but Elling makes them sound like standards. Less surprising is Joe Jackson's "Steppin' Out," which has all the right elements to be a permanent entry in the swing songbook.
Elling recorded a series of fine albums for the Blue Note label â€” among them "The Messenger" (1997), which features a rhythmically adventurous rendition of "April in Paris." His 2007 album, "Nightmoves," marked his debut with another well-regarded jazz imprint, Concord Records.
Elling often sings lyrics inspired by instrumental solos, a practice known as vocalese. And throughout his career, his song choices have often diverged from the standard jazz repertoire. But for him, it's a matter of being open to all the vast possibilities.
"The idea is to be unrestrained by categories," Elling says.