Kurt Elling, the elite male vocalist in jazz, awed an audience of about 400 on Saturday at the Gem Theater. The stellar exhibition of his groundbreaking talent demonstrated that Elling continues to dramatically expand the artistic possibilities of jazz vocals.
Beginning with his 1995 debut album, Elling and longtime collaborator and pianist Laurence Hobgood have reinvigorated the jazz vocal landscape. By eliminating tired cliches and contributing fresh concepts, the pair have redefined the form. The jazz world has taken notice. Elling's 10 albums have been nominated for 11 Grammy Awards and he has won 13 consecutive DownBeat magazine critics polls in the category of best male vocalist. Saturday's concert confirmed the rewards inherent in the revolutionary work of Elling and Hobgood.
A dramatic new arrangement of "Come Fly With Me" eradicated all vestiges of Frank Sinatra's well-known version. Elling wasn't being disrespectful to Sinatra's legacy. He simply refuses to rehash traditions that have grown stale. Sam Cooke's "You Send Me" was among the familiar selections that were given ingenious makeovers. Elling continues to expand the jazz repertoire with his unconventional song selections. He made renditions of Stevie Wonder's "Golden Lady" and the Elvis Presley hit "Heartbreak Hotel" seem like obvious additions to the jazz canon.
Elling and a sound engineer occasionally employed echo delays and looping effects to create dramatic new sounds. These electronic alterations subverted the somewhat shopworn standard "On Broadway." While the trickery was effective, Elling doesn't require sonic enhancement. His tenderly masculine voice was faultless. And his beat boxing was almost as impressive as his scat endeavors.
Elling was suave but never smarmy. While a few selections contained cabaret elements, Elling's impeccable backing quartet didn't allow him to become overly sentimental. Guitarist John McLean added exquisite Wes Montgomery-style accompaniment to "You Send Me" and slashing riffs to "On Broadway." Bassist Clark Sommers' showcase on the sparse reading of "Heartbreak Hotel" elicited appreciative shouts from the audience. Hobgood's irreproachably elegant playing was balanced by the crackling energy of the heralded young drummer Kendrick Scott.
The band furnished a reading of Jon Hendricks' unapologetically sexist "Home Cookin'" with a ribald bounce and gave Elling room to emote on the devastatingly melancholy "A House Is Not a Home" and the despairing "Where Are You?" Only a pleasant reading of "I'm Satisfied" seemed less than extraordinary.
There's a downside to Elling's brilliance. He makes the majority of his peers seem like unimaginative amateurs. The members of Saturday's audience at the Gem Theater may not truly enjoy another jazz vocal performance until they're reunited with Elling.