Grammy winner, jazz vocalist Kurt Elling keeps them guessing

Summoning such great jazz spirits as Joe Williams, Frank Sinatra and John Coltrane, jazz vocalist Kurt Elling hit Miller Auditorium Thursday night like a fireball.
Elling has performed in Kalamazoo several times before, but never with a big band. This time, he fronted the Western Michigan University Jazz Orchestra.

The collaboration was probably close to experiencing Frank Sinatra when Sinatra made girls scream, years before the Beatles.

There were no squawks or sour notes from the Jazz Orchestra. This student band wasn’t playing around. Elling had mailed ahead several big band arrangements for them to learn and the students did their homework. Their sound held up, and at times added heft to Elling’s greatly crafted, professional sound.

And the easy-going Elling floated from blues to ballads to humorous comments to the audience.

“You could be at home watching TV, thinking about how horrible human beings are, but instead you’re here watching some good-looking, intelligent student musicians!” he said to laughs and applause.

Elling, a multi-Grammy winner, sang before about 800 people with both WMU’s jazz vocal group Gold Company and the Jazz Orchestra. His jazz phrasing was unpredictable and kept patrons guessing. He tossed some words to guests like darts, other vocals like sailing softballs.

The program kicked into high gear right before intermission, when Elling sang a searing version of “Luck Be A Lady Tonight” with the Jazz Orchestra. The second half included several songs from Elling’s CDs done with big band arrangements.

While singing the heavy blues number, “Going to Chicago,” popularized by Count Basie and singer Joe Williams, Elling let out a few vocal growls that made several patrons shout, “Whoa!” He offered stunning vocalese to a big band arrangement of “Resolution” from John Coltrane’s masterpiece “A Love Supreme” and ended with an uptempo version of “Nature Boy,” which brought the audience to its feet with applause.

A new arrangement of the jazz classic “Sing, Sing, Sing” by WMU music professor Scott Cowan for the Jazz Orchestra was another program highlight. WMU music professor Keith Hall sat in on drums and added drive, energy and drama to the number.