Elling soothes jazz fans with “Dedicated to You”

You look at Kurt Elling leaning coolly and casually against the piano, every inch the hip jazzman in his sharp suit and jet-black, swept-back hair, revealing the high forehead of a superior intellect. You hear him scat singing or his voice imaginatively soaring from baritone to falsetto, telling stories, re-imagining historic music by John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman. Doing dozens of little things that breath life into the music: “Yes!” you could hear Elling say approvingly — without the microphone, just him talking to Rob Amster — during a bass solo. This, quite frankly, is jazz as good as it gets.
The show is called “Dedicated to You,” with much of the evening resurrecting the 1963 classic album John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman. Elling, who is as interesting to watch as he is to listen to, played every nuance of “You Are Too Beautiful,” his face a mask of anguish as he sang to a straying lover, “have you been comparing my every kiss to theirs?”

One extraordinary moment, Elling somehow produced a sound like bees trapped in a jar, just by moving his face toward and then away from the microphone. He scatted like a tree full of exotic and excited songbirds. He explained vocalese as “a cellular overhang from the 20th century” — Elling likes to have fun with words — then demonstrated this style of vocals mimicking instrumental melody with “Those Clouds Are Heavy, You Dig,” a hipster piece he wrote that supposedly follows a old Paul Desmond sax solo. He let the band, which included pianist Laurence Hobgood, drummer Ulysses Owens and Grammy-nominated tenor saxman Ernie Watts, cut loose on some improv that was fun avant-garde clatter.

But there was no eluding standards like “Lush Life,” a classic that Elling conceded is so familiar, he hates to do it. Yet you can’t leave it off of a tribute to Coltrane and Hartman. “Did they call them standards in those days?” Elling mused. “They just called ’em tunes.”