A common reaction to singers like Kurt Elling is that they were born a few decades too late. Some might say they missed out on the heyday of Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett and Mel Tormé and thus are consigned to be a retro novelty. But Elling has successfully avoided this trap, pushing the boundaries of modern vocal jazz on nine innovative studio albums, including his newest, 1619 Broadway—The Brill Building Project (Concord).
Elling's Oct. 27 performance at the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater in Washington, D.C., was a different matter entirely. His brilliant singing and bold interpretations of the Great American Songbook lost much of their impact due to his hokey patter and mugging for the audience, affectations that imitate a stereotypical vision of standards singers from the 1950s. This cheesiness was initially endearing, but soon obscured the creativity of the music and threatened to reduce the songs to relics of another era.
What was so surprising about Elling's willingness to portray himself as a retro act is that it was nowhere evident in the music itself. Elling worked his way through a challenging set of songs from the famed Brill Building, from swinging reinterpretations of "You Send Me" and "I'm Satisfied" to ballads "I Only Have Eyes For You" and the lovely "A House Is Not A Home." His voice was full of the rich, oaky tones that his admirers love, and his intonation was flawless, never missing a note and hitting every word with a full, clean attack. The standout of the night was a stripped-down version of "Lonely Avenue," performed with just the bass and the voices of the band.
While many jazz singers are content to back themselves with a capable but unspectacular band, Elling benefits from sharing the stage with an outstanding quartet of instrumentalists. With Elling, all things start with longtime collaborator Laurence Hobgood on piano. Hobgood's sophisticated accompaniment is the perfect complement to Elling's voice, but he is also a strong soloist. Unafraid to bring some distorted fuzz to the mix, guitarist John McLean turned in some nice solos and locked in well with Hobgood's piano, while bassist Clark Sommers shone on the inspired "Lonely Avenue." Aside from Elling, drummer Kendrick Scott was the star of the performance. Best known as the drummer for trumpeter Terence Blanchard's band, Scott might just be the most exciting young drummer in jazz. Though he could not be as innovative in this setting as he can be with Blanchard, Scott found plenty of opportunities to show off his talents.
Though Elling's presentation obscured the skilled musicianship evident in the performance, it was still an impressive outing by one of the leading male vocalists in jazz, with clever and satisfying interpretations of some modern American classics.