Kurt Elling is unmistakably a jazz singer; his subtle shifts of accent and time transform the most mundane lyrics into narratives steeped in the human condition. His current repertoire, based on his recent CD 1619 Broadway , celebrates the songwriters and music pluggers of Manhattan's Brill Building, whose output included, he reminded us, "The Locomotion", "Yakety Yak" and other classic teen fare.
Such songs might seem ephemeral, but they stick in the mind, as Elling pointed out, "even if you don't like them". At this gig, the first night of a sold-out run of six, Elling's choice ranged from Carole King's "So Far Away" and "Pleasant Valley Sunday" to "You Send Me", written by the great soul singer, the late Sam Cooke – Elling timed the "honest you do" of the lyric to perfection, adding ambiguity to a puppy-love theme.
Elling opened at a canter with "Come Fly With Me", the last syllable of "Away" lengthened, vibrated and cut off at exactly the right point for maximum effect. Later in the set, new lyrics to Duke Ellington's "Tutti for Cootie" and the pentatonic scat on the shuffle-driven "I'm Satisfied" confirmed Elling's more orthodox jazz credentials. And there was a lovely ballad reading of "I Only Have Eyes for You" in the second set, which set up Stevie Wonder's "Golden Lady" for a finale. Taken in conjunction with the brace of Carole King, the evening delivered the sad and sardonic as well as the joyous and love-smitten.
Elling's transformative powers are centred on a pitch-perfect tenor, clear diction and pinpoint timing. His stage announcements are similarly well judged. The evening's highlight, an arrangement of Duke Ellington's "I Like the Sunrise" based on a Von Freeman saxophone solo, had Elling-penned lyrics inspired by the writings of Rumi, the 13th-century Persian mystic. The introduction was wry and absorbing, the playing sublime.
But most important, Elling is completely at one with his band. The arrangements by pianist and long-term collaborator Laurence Hobgood are as lean and hip as Elling's delivery, and the mood of each song is enhanced and enriched by an instrumental showcase. Standouts included Hobgood's haunting impressionism on "I Only Have Eyes for You", and the chattering, contemporary, time-aware pulse provided by new-generation drummer Kendrick Scott.
Four stars: * * * *