Elling in the Rain

It was more In the Wee Small Hours than Songs for Swinging Lovers. It was a rainy, damp, dark night on New Haven Green. An orchestra played and a man sang anyway, because that's what they do.
Over 1,000 hardy souls hung out on the Green Saturday night despite the weather to hear jazz singer Kurt Elling and the New Haven Symphony Orchestra. The usual back-up location for rained-out Green concerts, Yale's Woolsey Hall, was occupied, so a rain-or-shine decision was made. It was a good one.

Some folks in the crowd might have remembered a similarly drizzly concert, by the Duke Ellington Orchestra back in 1999, during the New Haven Jazz Festival. More recently, Yo Yo Ma's Silk Road Ensemble played in the rain for the 2011 Festival of Arts and Ideas. But it's much more common that concerts will simply be cancelled due to inclement weather, so the sounds never get a chance to fill the Green and glide through the raindrops.

The misty — all right, downright downpouring — night made some of the sultry jazz-pop seem even sweeter. Elling told a tale about being in a cabin next to Arturo Sandoval on a jazz cruise and hearing the eminent trumpeter play a mournful riff because he'd seen an island out at sea that reminded him of his native Cuba. The way Elling told it, Sandoval was sad because while he'd been able to bring his family (and himself) out of Cuba for a new life in the United States, he'd hoped that his mother could have been laid to rest in her home country. Elling asked Sandoval if he could write appropriate lyrics for Sandoval's melody. The result, a touching song of longing and loss titled “Bonita Cuba,” is on Elling's new multicultural album Passion World, released June 9.

The Arts and Ideas booking of Elling fit with a slew of festival events marking the 100th anniversary of the birth of Frank Sinatra. But Elling is not a Sinatra impersonator or tributemonger. He may be very much in the tradition of Ol' Blue Eyes, and he may pepper his between-song banter with words like “baby,” “tight,” and “swinging,” and he may have covered the Sinatra classic “All the Way,” and he may dress like someone out of Mad Men.

But Elling is his own cool cat. He did two iconic Nat “King” Cole tunes, “Nature Boy” and “Portrait of Jennie.” He's more of a composer and lyricist than Sinatra ever was. He can sing “scat” and “vocalese,” which Sinatra tended not to do. He can put over an old Scottish tune, a task that the Italian Sinatra generally relinquished to his Irish pal Bing Crosby. He can get out of the way when world-class alto saxophonist Will Vinson is welcomed onstage for a solo.

This was Elling's third appearance on New Haven Green. The first was opening for Ray Charles in 2001, one of the most memorable nights in New Haven outdoor musical history. The Ray Charles show was arguably the best-attended concert ever held on New Haven Green. (Second place probably goes to an early Arts and Ideas invitee, Little Richard.) This one was distinctive for the large number of people who came out in the rain to see a show that they'd have good reason to think had been cancelled. It was a jubilant, enthralled crowd that stayed until the damp, sopping end. Onstage, it was a show of grace and energy and perseverance, especially by violinists and cellists and bassists who were undoubtedly concerned about warpage and other air pressure and wetness issues.

Throughout it all, Kurt Elling was an upbeat showman. Among his last speeches to the crowd exhorted them to try the few food booths along Temple Street that hadn't shut down in the rain. “I encourage you to have some, what does it say, 'corn cob' … some of the 'best roasted corn on the cob.'”

Oh, and there was this orchestra there too. The New Haven Symphony, with William Boughton himself conducting. Last year, the symphony's A&I appearance was used to introduce the ensemble's new principle Pops conductor, Chelsea Tipton II. This time it was fully Boughton's baton.

The orchestra's role in the concert was fairly light. Elling's own band — piano, electric guitar, upright bass, drums — did most of the heavy lifting. The orchestral arrangements weren't complicated. But when the NHSO did chime in, it was magnificent, the layers of strings and brass and timpani creating a transcendent aura around the band. The resultant glow pushed back against the rain and gloom. Folks waltzed in the rain. They held hands beneath umbrellas. They just smiled.