Flirting with the mainstreamBrilliant jazz vocalist Kurt Elling plays it a little straighter

If the Chicago-based Kurt Elling has yet to find the kind of crossover audience that other vocalists have lucked into, perhaps it’s because he’s simply too hip.
Maybe this compelling ballad collection will put Elling over the top, but don’t hold your breath. Elling rarely plays it this straight, but the album still doesn’t sacrifice one iota of jazz content.

Elling does no extended scat singing here, and there’s just one new vocalese (words set to a jazz solo), an Elling trademark. The tempos often slow to a saloon-singer crawl. Yet his phrasing remains loose and swinging, his use of vibrato restrained and his timbre coated with an expressive rust. It’s easy to imagine a saxophonist phrasing “Blame It on My Youth” with the same improvisatory whims as Elling.

The paradox is that words have never seemed more important to Elling. The slow tempos reinforce how sensitive he is to the spirit of a lyric, finding within the poetry the seeds of his spontaneity.

There might not be another male singer in jazz younger than 50 who brings the poise and understanding that Elling does to the lazy walk of “Detour Ahead,” where he glides knowingly atop the coattails of drummer Peter Erskine’s ride cymbal and Marc Johnson’s walking bass. Pianist Laurence Hobgood’s savvy orchestration for trumpet and two saxophones winks at a full big band chart.

Elling’s own lyrics are blushed by striking imagery. You can tell he’s well-read, and not just from his nod to poet Kenneth Rexroth in the liner notes. On “Moonlight Serenade,” the astonishing vocalese based on a Charlie Haden bass solo includes this particularly evocative line: “When the noise of day dies away/ The night and twilight stay and stay/ Making quiet love up high over the town.”

Remarkably, Elling transforms this corny big band hit into a profound, contemporary love song, and when Mitchell Parish’s original lyric comes around, we hear the words fresh, stripped of the scrim of postmodern irony that has become de rigueur these days.

Hobgood’s harmonically rich arrangements underscore the delicate balance of intimate, modern detailing without self-conscious preening. The charts amplify the emotional content of the material, but the communication runs the other way, too. Elling, unlike many jazz singers, actually listens and reacts to his band mates, singing from the center of the group rather than off in a metaphorical isolation booth.