Dances with Kurt Elling’s ‘Best Things’ a potent artistic mix clouded by self-praise

With some judicious editing and a bit of self-restraint, the audacious performance-piece that singer Kurt Elling unveiled Monday night at Steppenwolf Theatre could emerge as his most imposing work.
As its title suggests, “The Best Things Happen While You’re Dancing” merges music and motion, but it would be unfair to describe this evening merely as a collaboration between Elling’s first-rate jazz band and various members of the Tyego Dance Project. Because spoken word, subtle lighting design, fluid stage direction and a heady spirit of improvisation also play key roles as the evening touches on more aesthetic forms than one generally encounters in a week’s worth of concertgoing.

This work in which the central figure, Elling, gleefully shatters traditional boundaries among artistic disciplines. In the process, Elling adds layers of meaning, text and subtext to his work as jazz singer.

The evening’s first half is its powerhouse, with Elling reeking off familiar works from his repertoire of the last five years, as well as a few novelties. As Elling dispatches each piece, one or more dancers offer a visual counterpoint to the vocal pyrotechnics.

So many of these vignettes prove eloquent- with the crisp imagery of Elling’s lyrics enhanced by the abstract, poetic motion of the dancers- that it’s difficult to single out highlights.

Certainly the solo dancer who all but floats across the stage as Elling sings “Storyteller Experiencing Total Confusion,” the whimsical duet for dancers who carnally intertwine as Elling cracks wise on “She Slimed Him” and the satiric, retro choreography on “The Best Things Happen While You’re Dancing” all leave indelible impressions.

So does “The Chicago Picasso,” with Elling and pianist Laurence Hobgood’s free-ranging musical setting of Gwendolyn Brooks’ poem finding sleek accompaniment in jazzy, Fosse-tinged choreography.

It would take a remarkable conclusion to match the intensity of the first half, so it’s no surprise the evening all but runs out of gas after intermission. Considering the inconsequential nature of Elling’s texts for “Endless,” the major opus of the second half, the singer would have been better off without it.

Only “I Can’t Get Started,” a stunning duet for Elling’s unaccompanied vocals and solo dancer (Jennifer Carney Elling, his wife), is on par with the set-pieces in the first half.

When a shooting star appears to streak the heavens at the work’s conclusion, there’s no doubt that Elling once again is his conceptual best.