Kurt Elling at Birdland: the vocal superstar dazzles

Nearly two years ago, Nate Chinen wrote in his column “The Gig” that Kurt Elling was “the most influential jazz vocalist of our time,” a statement so absolute that it triggered an all-out war in the comments section. One non-fan opined that Elling was nothing less than “a narcissistic, hepcat blowhard, and his performances are pretentious, overinflated, overrated, and downright silly.”
But love him or leave him, Elling can’t be denied: his popularity shows no sign of abating more than 15 years after his recording debut, and a proliferation of similarly inclined male vocalists emerging in recent years would seem to bear out Chinen’s bold declaration. In the first set of a six-night/12-show run at Manhattan’s Birdland, each evening featuring a different guest artist (on this night, saxophonist Miguel Zénon), Elling reaffirmed why he’s attained mainstream success: His bravura performance, supported by Denmark’s Klüvers Big Band, was a thriller.

Elling looks the part of the classic jazz singer: Handsomely sculpted, elegantly attired and coiffed, debonair, confident and engaged, he owns the stage. Anything but a casual crooner, he commands attention; seemingly minute details of a song become exaggerated in his hands and he draws the listener in, closely. Whether borrowing a Songbook standard, adapting a rock-era number or introducing an original, Elling burrows to the heart of a song and rides it high; many singers act out a lyric but Elling wears it in the smiles and grimaces of his nearly 44-year-old face. Much like the less-gifted Harry Connick Jr. before him, Elling relishes the role of post-Sinatra: His art is clearly not born of his time yet he brings to it an indisputably contemporary patina.

Opening with his interpretation of Joe Jackson’s “Steppin’ Out,” from his 2011 Concord Jazz release The Gate, Elling’s adaptive skills were in full bloom from the onset. He clearly relished teaming with a large ensemble (which included his own rhythm section augmenting the Danes). The format opened Elling up to additional dynamic range, but also allowed him to defer some of the attention: With each solo turn by a musician, Elling took the opportunity to leave the spotlight, sit on a stool and soak in the sound.

Which isn’t to say he didn’t work hard—the beads of sweat were well earned during the uptempo numbers and the ballads required intense concentration on his part. In “The Waking,” a song from his 2007 Nightmoves album that here featured only Elling and bassist Clark Sommers, Elling’s vocal acrobatics—pliable glissandos and shifts from baritone to tenor to flirtations with falsetto—were often breathtaking. His scatting, effortlessly eased into from a lyrical passage, often bordered on the exotic and his timing and enunciation were impeccable. But technique was only part of the appeal: In Rodgers and Hart’s “You Are Too Beautiful,” the first tune featuring Zénon, Elling made every word count, and when the saxophone took its turn, Zénon knew to maintain the mood of the vocal: melodic and swinging, edgy but never over-extended. Zénon, like Elling, values precision and control but not at the expense of emotion; he fit in as if he’d already toured with the band for months.

While Elling did, of course, draw from the past for material (Van Heusen/Cahn’s “All the Way,” Cole Porter’s “In the Still of the Night”), a few of the tunes, he explained, were “future” ones, intended for a musical he is in the process of writing. Of those, the most promising was “All Points West.” Instructing his musical director and pianist for the first part of the set, Laurence Hobgood, to “play some art,” Elling unveiled the tale of “a young woman being tossed aside.” During a particularly bluesy piano solo, Elling sat down, grabbed a small paper fan and cooled himself off. By the end of the 75-minute show, which wrapped with a smooth but still funky take on Stevie Wonder’s “Golden Lady” (from the new album) and an authoritative encore of “My Foolish Heart,” which appeared on Elling’s 2000 Live in Chicago album, a roomful of admirers was ready to do the same. Pretentious, overinflated, overrated and downright silly were not the adjectives on patrons’ lips as they exited.