Leaning on the piano, listening to his band, glancing up into the full house at Kilbourn Hall, Kurt Elling was the picture of ease. Day 9, final day of the Xerox Rochester International Jazz Festival, and that's the picture you want to hang onto.
"And it's all happening in air-conditioned splendor!" Elling marveled.
"Come Fly With Me," he sang, tackling Sinatra with his first song. A daring choice, even for a singer as highly regarded as Elling. Sinatra owns that song. But Elling was turning a few heads here. Unlike the smooth Sinatra delivery, Elling fills each line with unexpected phrasing.
He knows how to win over the audience, praising it for its high fashion sense, intelligence and hipness — "Just the sexiest people in town." He's a hipster himself in slicked-back hair with a pocket handkerchief, and uses cool words like "ensemble" when the rest of us say "band."
Sinatra's not Elling's influence, anyway. Mark Murphy is. Perhaps you remember Murphy at this fest two years ago, 79 years old and the coolest guy in the Harro East Ballroom. Like Murphy, Elling sings — Dionne Warwick's "A House is Not a Home" — but he also speak-sings, kind of a lyric poetry. It's language architecture. And Sinatra never boomboxed, getting in a scat duel with his drummer. (Elling won with a move that had him brushing his microphone back and forth along the sleeve of his jacket, producing a scratchy fabric sound that no other vocalist came up with at this singer-heavy fest.)
He spoke of "the serendipic acquisition of the right song when you need it." This was praise for your radio deejay, although perhaps more for deejays from an era when they had more control over their playlists. But it was also a knock on the 21st century music practice of listening to songs on an iPod. "You put it in there yourself," he said. "So there is very little surprise."
So Elling's a throwback, and he described one such moment of serendipic acquisition that he experienced as a 19-year-old kid driving down a rural Wisconsin road in a battered pick-up truck, uncertain of what his next move should be with the 18-year-old girl sitting next to him. He fiddled with the radio, and found a song written in 1934, recorded in 1959. "Talk about the right song at the right time," Elling said. And then he sang it: The Flamingos' "I Only Have Eyes For You."