First Nighter: Kurt Elling Fools Around With Time at Birdland

Whenever I hear Kurt Elling, I’m reminded of firsts — for instance, the first time I ate caviar, the first time I drank Campari, the first time I eyed a Wassily Kandinski painting. I’m talking here about acquired tastes but more than that, I’m referring to the shock of the suddenly and compellingly new that the unexplored, the unfamiliar Kandinski, caviar, Campari once represented for me — just as Elling so manifestly does.
His approach to a song is all that — previously unexplored, unfamiliar — and as a result can initially be, well, not exactly off-putting but distancing, temporarily puzzling. Everything about the way the nimble, compact fellow with slicked-back hair, informal formal outfit and open-necked shirt performs exclaims that he loves singing. But it’s how he applies his luxuriant four-octave baritone to material that’s groundbreaking.

It’s also melody rearranging. This isn’t unusual for a jazz singer, of course — it’s par for the jazz-room course. But Elling generally does his work without altering melody but by treating the sequential measures of a song unconventionally. When he’s engaged in his interpretations, it’s as if sheet-music staves melt and flow away. It’s as if he’s operating on a unique musical wave-length.

He is. Towards the end of his recent Birdland stint (March 1-5) — or at least towards the end of the second set I attended — he delivered a spoken riff that explained, though obliquely, the method behind his divine madness. Beginning by coining a word I loved — “prioritagiousness,” I suppose it could be spelled — he eventually waxed imaginative by chatting about the effects of remaining awake beyond twenty-four, thirty-six, forty-eight hours. He observed that carrying on in that way creates an entirely fresh sense of what constitutes a day.

In other words, he’s talking about reorienting time, and that, of course, is just what he does with songs. He revises their time signatures, elides them, elongates them, derives incomparable pleasure from ignoring them, suggesting as he does that melodies are blueprints for a different kind of improvisation, for a different kind of deconstruction, for, that is, an unprecedented Elling treatment.

And this isn’t to disregard his scatting ability not only with nonsense syllables but — in the bracing Jon Hendricks tradition — with words. (Mark Murphy is another influence, although, like all creative artists, Elling takes his influences and shapes them for a new plane.) This also isn’t to overlook the contributions made by his band — pianist Laurence Hobgood, guitarist John McLean, bassist Harish Raghavan, drummer Ulysses Owens Jr. — who follow his lead in the loosening-a-song’s-tight-laces department.

For the week’s gig, Elling included material on current CD release, The Gate — as in, he points out, the phrase “swinging on…” He opened with the great Leo Robin-Ralph Rainger “Easy Living,” which served as a tip-off to how easy he’s about to be with the ensuing selections. Among other numbers he took on — and during which he always glided aside for a while so the musicians could delve deeply into their thing as well — he put his mesmerizing mannerisms and emotional strengths to the benefit of the Earth, Wind & Fire “After the Love Has Gone.” Brought back to the stage for a “Save Your Love For Me” encore, he unspooled some of his best flourishes, as he sustained high notes, abruptly dipping both physically and vocally into low notes and holding a final note so long he may still be somewhere holding it.

Certainly, it’s been said before that the name “Elling” is two-thirds of the name “Ellington.” The singer must keep the fact in mind, because at one point in the set he read a Duke Ellington quote. Elling shares much of the same elegant quality that the love-you-madly genius exuded. Not bad, huh?