A Quirky Night for Quirky Romance

At first blush the stage at the Allen Room on Friday night appeared to be set for seduction. Soft lighting? (Check.) Simmering groove? (Check.) Slow drift of headlights in the background, along Central Park South? (O.K., sure.) And finally Kurt Elling in a double-breasted suit, microphone in hand. “Love is the only thing to balance fearing,” he sang, with suave self-assurance. “Loving the deepest depths appearing.” (What’s that again?)
Mr. Elling was enunciating his own lyrics to a version of “Body and Soul” that traced the cloverleaf sprawl of a classic Dexter Gordon improvisation. “A New Body and Soul” didn’t add up to a conventional love song: it was inspired by the birth of Mr. Elling’s daughter and dropped allusions to the tragedy of Orpheus and Eurydice. What it did do was showcase a few of this singer’s unconventional strengths, including his viselike grasp of intonation and timbre and his fastidious yet felicitous way with a phrase.

Much (but not all) of the audience appeared comfortable with Mr. Elling’s mannered style, which occupies the overlap among beatnik chic, clubby jazz geekdom and pseudo-mythic solipsism. (See Orpheus and Eurydice, above.) Together with another fine and quirky singer, Nancy King, Mr. Elling was performing his first of four shows under the auspices of Jazz at Lincoln Center, as part of a Valentine-weekend charm offensive.

Elsewhere in the Rose Hall complex there were less labyrinthine inducements to romance, involving Wynton Marsalis with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra (playing Ellington) or the understated pianist-crooner Freddy Cole (playing whatever he pleased). Perhaps a few of the patrons who slipped out of the Allen Room at mid-set had one of those other options in mind. Presumably they weren’t enthralled by the stem-winding scat exchanges between Mr. Elling and Ms. King.

Those tangents felt well-intentioned, and they were duly impressive. Ms. King fell right into step with Mr. Elling’s flexible trio, composed of Laurence Hobgood on piano, Rob Amster on bass and Gregory Hutchinson on drums. She may be a less stratospheric improviser than Mr. Elling, but she shares his sharp intuition and rangy agility. Their rapport on a stripped-down “Misterioso,” the angular blues by Thelonious Monk, was collegial and casual. But where was the love?

As a theme, love surfaced most effectively on a pair of ballads that reflected the quiet side of heartbreak. Mr. Elling sang his take on “Where Are You?” — based on another solo by Dexter Gordon, a steadfast muse — with sumptuous restraint. For her part Ms. King delivered an intimate reading of “Once Upon a Summertime” with Mr. Hobgood; even here she scatted, but tenderly, as if channeling a Toots Theilemans harmonica solo.

This was the set’s only solo feature for Ms. King, who at 67 is a more seasoned singer than Mr. Elling, though less well known. (He is 40, and now records for Concord after a solid decade on Blue Note.) The show ended with “Nature Boy,” a pyrotechnic trademark for Mr. Elling and his band, which left Ms. King little room to contribute. It was a flash-bang finish, but seductive? Not even close.