As a nearly perennial visitor to the Bistro stage, modern-day crooner Kurt Elling is considered by many to be one of the highlights of the Jazz St. Louis season.
The Chicago native attracts fans from all generations to his shows, and more than a handful stayed for the second set on Wednesday night. Known for his wild scat solos and ad libbed lyrics, the mellow toned vocalist drew the crowd closer with every bip, bap and zow. There may have even been some swooning going on, as Elling sealed each line with a mischievous grin.
The band took the stage before Elling to start the set, allowing the lead man to enter with a showman's swagger. After a warm welcome from both the band and the crowd, the songster got right to business and moved quickly into his first solo. He scatted with a style similar to a trumpet, his fingers fluttering over non-existent valves. Clearly comfortable on the microphone, Elling filled the set with ad libs, timing changes and melodic phrasing during the scripted compositions as well as the solos, keeping the entire room on their toes with the unexpected. With a selection that included the songs of Frank Sinatra, Pat Metheny and Dexter Gordon as well as his own, the crooner shared a good mood and a little bit of fun with the crowd.
While certainly capable of enchanting the audience on his own, Elling is far from alone on stage. His arrangement is assembled from standout musicians with notable careers of their own. While many of the faces regularly support the vocalist, piano and organ player Emmet Cohen has been a sporadic visitor to the tour for less than a year. The 24-year-old has garnered a stack of awards with all the rightly due attention that comes with them. Quite justly, he took the first solo after Elling in the opening piece, building from a breakdown into an energetic syncopated groove. He mixed it up with a song on the organ and another Cuban styled piece that introduced an entirely new set of riffs and techniques. Throughout the set, Cohen proved to be innovative and quite comical with his interpolations, enamoring himself to anyone that could take their eyes off Elling.
One of the highlights of the set featured bassist Clark Sommers when he joined Elling for a duet. Following the singer's lead, Sommers improvised an accompaniment that was lively in pace and rhythmically diverse, but passive enough to maintain his supportive role. John McLean filled a similar function on the guitar, providing energetic support, but without drawing attention. His solos often mimicked Elling's vocals in pitch and style, but he broke out of the mold a few times, incorporating slides and blues rhythms into the mix. Bryan Carter was an equally tactful member of the arrangement, controlling the intensity of the group on the drumset. However, when offered the chances on breaks and solos, he bit his lip and dug in with even more intensity than the others.
Kurt Elling and company offer a distinguishing blend of chemistry and charisma. While pulling selections from the Great American Songbook and other familiar tunes, they use improvised progressions and talented soloists to transform even the most recognizable melody into a distinctive performance. With the singer's ad libbing skills at the helm, each performance is irreplaceable and crowds can see them again and again without ever growing stagnant.
Kurt Elling and his band have proven worthy of their repeated visits to Jazz at the Bistro, and the ever growing pool of devoted fans hope he continues to return season after season.