Jazz vocalist Kurt Elling, who sang at the Dakota on Thursday night, is a masterful reinventor of songs. He seems to have no trepidation about taking on standards you've heard a zillion times that have been (almost) indelibly identified with iconic singers who came before him.
There were two examples in the opening minutes of his early set at the Dakota in downtown Minneapolis. Elling started his show with his rendition of "Come Fly With Me," a song normally considered the artistic property of the late Frank Sinatra. Sinatra made the song a pop-radio staple back in the late 1960s, but Elling's version was thoroughly reconfigured with a choppier beat than the original, along with hints of Latin rhythms and a slight bluesy tinge.
He accomplished a similar reinvention of "You Send Me," another million-seller made famous by the late R&B icon Sam Cooke. As he often does, Elling used his four-octave range, athletically resilient vocal cords and melismatic flair to bend and stretch notes and tones, inviting the listeners to consider each word of the timeless, familiar lyrics in new ways.
Elling often seems to get lost in the pure sound of lyrics, fully living the jazz moment, with dramatic and artful results.
Guitarist John McLean likewise made his guitar sing, with some drawn-out, slightly distorted notes and bluesy string bends.
Pianist Xavier Davis also turned in some lyrical solos. He recently joined the band, taking the place of Laurence Hobgood, who parted ways with Elling after a 20-year partnership and journey from obscurity to Grammy-winning fame.
While Elling has spent most of his career focusing on material from the Great American Songbook, he's now in the process of expanding his musical borders. In the process of touring internationally, he's been collecting songs from Europe, the Middle East, the Caribbean and South America; he plans to record them for an upcoming CD called "Passion World."
The second half of the set featured some of those tunes, starting with a dramatic Cuban tale of heartbreak sung in Spanish by Elling. He followed that with "Love's Tangled Road," featuring lyrics Elling penned for a beautiful melody supplied by Richard Galliano, the great French accordionist.
Elling made great use of space in his vocal phrasing, something he seems to do better than possibly any other contemporary jazz singer. His singing is evocative of the way Miles Davis used to phrase his trumpet solos.
Elling also sang a beautiful ballad he was given by an Irish orchestra leader, based on a poignant sonnet by James Joyce, "Dear Heart, Why Will You Use Me So?"
Elling closed the set by showing his affinity for the glide and stride of bebop, with a swingingly scatted rendition of Thelonious Monk's "Green Chimneys." One of the most eccentric of Monk's many compositions, in Elling's hands it is an ideal vehicle for high-flying scat vocalizing.