Why do Cole Porter's songs still get under our skin?
For starters, his lyrics show a degree of poetry, wit and insight unattained before he began penning hits in the late 1920s and rarely has been matched in American song since (though Stephen Sondheim clearly stands as a worthy heir).
Then, too, Porter's melodies work their own magic, his lines traveling the scale sinuously from major to minor and back again with haunting simplicity.
For these reasons, and others, the great singers of the 20th century have tested their talents in Porter's enormous oeuvre, the work of Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Tony Bennett, Johnny Hartman, Nat "King" Cole and others establishing an exalted performance standard in this repertoire.
On Wednesday evening, singer Kurt Elling and the Chicago Jazz Orchestra took on this Everest of American music in "Celebrating Cole Porter." The sold-out concert offered many pleasures, some disappointments and a renewed appreciation for Porter's work – and the landmark interpretations it has inspired.
Conductor Jeff Lindberg's CJO long has specialized in performing transcriptions of classic recordings, and this revival of celebrated arrangements of Porter's songs – especially those associated with Sinatra – often proved a boon to listeners. As much as we may love landmark albums containing orchestrations of Nelson Riddle, Johnny Mandel and Claus Ogerman, among others, there's nothing like hearing this music live. In concert, details of voicing and subtleties of instrumental color become more lucid than on disc.
At the same time, however, hearing these versions inevitably brings to mind the singers who recorded them, posing unmistakable challenges to anyone who attempts them now.
To his credit, Elling veered away from Sinatra's inimitable precedent, inventing his own phrasing, timing and attacks in extremely familiar arrangements, no small feat.
Some of his boldest work unfolded in "Miss Otis Regrets," an unconventional Porter story-song rarely performed by men these days and drawn from Nat "King" Cole's "At the Sands" album. Elling took his time here, as befits the narrative nature of the piece, lingering over every syllable and, therefore, giving Porter's clever lyric its due. Lindberg and the CJO (augmented by strings for the Porter project) deftly followed Elling's lead, holding back and pushing ahead when he did.
Elling also brought welcome touches of improvisation and a joyous finale to "From This Moment On"; and genuine tenderness to "Ev'ry Time We Say Goodbye."
His best moments, by far, occurred when he cut loose, riffing exuberantly with only a small-group accompaniment in "You'd Be So Nice to Come Home To." Here was Elling in his métier, offering the high-flying scat singing at which he excels but which he doles out far too sparingly. He also finessed Joe Clark's exquisitely detailed new arrangement of George Gershwin's "I've Got a Crush on You," played by the Spektral Quartet (considering the luster of the instrumentals, one could forgive the brief departure from the evening's Porter theme).
But Elling proved less compelling in other works. His attempt at "I've Got You Under My Skin," in Riddle's arrangement, lacked rhythmic tension and vocal nuance (though the CJO provided the roaring, sustained crescendo that drives the concluding pages). And in the Ogerman version of "I Concentrate on You," and elsewhere, Elling offered an oddly monochromatic, somewhat nasal tone and scant insight into the lyric.
In the end, the interpretive depth of Sinatra's readings, the majesty of Bennett's, the sensuality of Cole's, the tonal resplendence of Hartman's and so on will remain the measure by which other singers are judged in this music.
Among these, Bennett fortunately still performs. In the absence of the others, Elling can be a credible voice – and often was on this evening. Perhaps over time he'll find deeper meanings in Porter masterpieces that are rich in them.