Perhaps it was only fitting that Kurt Elling, one of the finest jazz singers of this generation, opened his Celebrity Series show with an homage to the previous generation's vocal king. His version of one of Frank Sinatra's signature tunes, "Come Fly with Me," is quintessential Elling: an inventive arrangement whose tastefully reharmonized chords kept the familiar song slightly off-kilter, and a floating 6/8 time feel that made you really want to take off.
Elling's appearance was part of the tour for his new recording, Passion World — release date is June 9 — and the wildly appreciative audience got to hear seven of its twelve tunes. What's really new for Elling, though, is that he and longtime collaborator/musical director/arranger Laurence Hobgood are no longer joined in the creative partnership that was responsible for his string of successful, Grammy-nominated albums. In Passion World — both the recording and the show — Elling is transitioning to working with other arrangers and band members. In fact, Hobgood's presence is still felt, whether in "Come Fly with Me" (from Elling's 2012 CD, 1619 Broadway: The Brill Building Project), or in his arrangements for new songs like "After the Door," a Pat Metheny composition with Elling lyrics that seem to comment on the transition: "There's a world of love and music, after the door." But the new album is Elling's baby — he's the only producer listed — and both it and the Sanders show prove that he's doing just fine flying solo.
Elling brought with him a mix of old and new band members. The tasty guitarist John McLean, who first recorded with him on 2011's The Gate, also contributed a number of arrangements, including a lovely spare, rhythmic version of "I Have Dreamed" from The King and I. In the keyboard chair for recording and tour is the versatile Gary Versace, on piano, organ, and accordion. Rounding out the excellent band is bassist Clark Sommers, who played on Elling's 2009 Grammy-winning album Dedicated to You as well as the Brill Building Project and Passion World, and the young New York drummer Bryan Carter. And just over halfway through the concert, Elling brought out his featured guest, the virtuoso reed player Anat Cohen, on clarinet.
I've never seen Elling when he wasn't in fine voice, and this show was no exception. Singing and scatting from the low end of his strong baritone up to the top of his equally strong falsetto, he covers a lot of territory — vocally, stylistically, and on Passion World, thematically. The album focuses on songs Elling has gathered in his travels, including a few sung in other languages — Spanish, French, Portuguese, and even (on a digital bonus track) Polish. At Sanders he ventured only the Spanish "Si te contara," a bolero that suffered from a lack of true Latin feel in the drums (which Elling gamely tried to supply by banging a cowbell through the tune) but was rescued by Versace's anchoring accordion and Cohen's fiery clarinet solo. More successful was "Bonita Cuba," a bluesy ballad that Arturo Sandoval wrote while reflecting on his and his parents' longing for their lost homeland. Elling heard Sandoval playing the melancholy melody from his cabin next door on a jazz cruise, and his lyrics perfectly captured Sandoval's story, as did Cohen's growling, crying solo.
Elling reached into his singer's bag of tricks to trade mouth percussion and scat sounds with Carter on "Samurai Cowboy," his vocalese lyric (on The Gate) to bassist Marc Johnson's "Samurai Hee-Haw." He delivered a rocking, high-energy "Nature Boy" that felt a little too hot for the room, and the song. Throughout the evening Elling dazzled with his chops and intensity, but it was the quieter moments that stood out.
Two of these were poetry settings. On "The Waking" (from 2007's Nightmoves), Elling paired up with Sommers for a tender bass/voice duet on Theodore Roethke's lovely poem ("I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow / I feel my fate in what I cannot fear / I learn by going where I have to go"). He also did one of Passion World's Irish entries (the other is U2's "Where the Streets Have No Name") — "Where Love Is," based on James Joyce's love poem "Dear Heart, Why Will You Use Me So," with music by Dubliner Brian Byrne. The simple, quiet arrangement featuring Versace on accordion and McLean on nylon-string guitar, was the perfect encore to a satisfying show.