Frank Sinatra once said, "I have an over-acute capacity for sadness as well as elation." In his tribute to Ol' Blue Eyes at the Café Carlyle, jazz singer Kurt Elling uncovered the Frank Sinatra essence of communicating both sadness and elation without attempting to imitate Sinatra. He opened with a high-flying, jazz inspired "Come Fly with Me" (Jimmy Van Heusen/Sammy Cahn), eschewing the familiar Count Basie swing arrangement. His encore was poignantly set up, with only Gary Versace's piano accompaniment, a profound, "In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning" (Bob Hilliard/Dave Mann).
With an vigorous sextet of horns and strings led by Versace, Elling illustrated his talent for interpreting lyrics while bringing a fresh, new individualism to the pop icon's songbook. The memories of Sinatra were especially evident with the heavy swing in "Too Marvelous for Words" (Richard Whiting/Johnny Mercer). More interpretive was John McLean's arrangement of "I Have Dreamed" by Oscar Hammerstein II and Richard Rodgers, opening with Jared Shonig's percussive beats like moody raindrops. "April in Paris" (Vernon Duke/E.Y. Harburg) showed off Elling's vocal scat mastery with his extended percussive face-off against Shonig.
Elling's baritone is rangy and flexible. His sense of time and rhythm is secure. He had no trouble with the jivey ring-a-ding-ding spirit of Sinatra's uptempo songs and, taking a ballad like "I'm a Fool to Want You," written by Sinatra, Jack Wolf and Joel Herron, he added the brooding meditation of Clark Sommers' bass. An outgoing stage presence, Elling reached out to the audience, keeping Sinatra up front and personal, even adding a reading by Gay Talese in Esquire magazine about Jilly's, the hangout where Sinatra had a chair in back just for himself.
The musicians were acknowledged and had chances to trade off statements with Elling. Besides Versace, Sommers and Shonig, they included John McLean on guitar, Wayne Tucker on trumpet and Troy Roberts on tenor sax.