Kurt Elling and Laurence Hobgood Kurt Elling and pianist Laurence Hobgood heat up the Gilmore Jazz Club

When jazz vocalist Kurt Elling was booked for the Gilmore International Keyboard Festival, some people wondered why. Part of the reason relates to the skills of Elling’s pianist, Laurence Hobgood. It was refreshing to see Hobgood spotlighted when Elling’s group performed Sunday for the first of two shows at Western Michigan University’s Gilmore Complex as part of the festival’s Jazz Club Series.
Hobgood, who is to be featured May 23 on Marian McPartland’s “Piano Jazz” program on National Public Radio, accompanied Elling’s singing in a variety of impressive ways, from powerful and lengthy runs on the piano to plucking piano strings.

The collaborative magic of Elling and Hobgood was truly on display Sunday as the men, along with bassist Rob Amster and drummer Ulysses Owens, turned several standards such as “My Foolish Heart,” “Bye Bye Blackbird” and “More Than You Know” inside out with jazz improvisation to the audience’s glee and applause.

Elling pushed vocal jazz to its limits in the show, yet the music remained easy to follow, which pulled in many of the novice jazz listeners present. His piece “The Waking,” performed with bass and voice only, was an example of that. It had no written melody, he said, yet his smooth and passionate improvisation gave the audience a comfortable ride.

And whenever Elling sang, it was easy to see why the talented Hobgood, who has co-produced all of Elling’s records, hasn’t been more recognized. Elling was mesmerizing. He performed with intensity, yet there was also an ease about his manner that communicated he thoroughly enjoyed what he was doing.

Thoroughly hip and groovy, this reincarnated poet from the Beat Generation — he said “man” and “cat” a lot and spoke with a great many flowery witticisms — also charmed the audience, which included several people celebrating Mother’s Day. He dedicated the song “More Than You Know” to good mothers — “all the moms who did it right,” he said.

“In my house it’s Mother’s Day every day, whether I’m ready for it or not,” he joked about his wife.