Kurt Elling avoids traps in paying tribute to Sinatra

Tribute concerts can present daunting challenges, but singer Kurt Elling obviously knows how to avoid them.
The reason is fairly simple: he is too good a performer to get caught up doing sappy versions of another person’s material. He also is too clever a performer to get trapped by mimicking someone.

He proved both of those points Saturday evening when he closed the regular season at the Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild on the North Side by doing two tribute shows to Frank Sinatra.

He explained the shows were put together to celebrate the 50-year anniversary of a worldwide tour Sinatra did to raise money for children’s charities. He did that by abandoning the big band that was making him famous at that time and hitting the road with a sextet.

Elling is doing much the same, traveling with a quintet and presenting the music both in ways that are close to Sinatra’s as well as styles that are more like his own fresh looks at music.

For instance, the set-closing “Too Marvelous for Words” swung along mightily, needing only a big band to make it pure Sinatra. His “Day In, Day Out,” though, was a simple statement of the song built around Elling’s crisp baritone.

But his versions of “Come Fly With Me” and “Moonlight in Vermont” were more strongly rooted in Elling’s creativity. “Come Fly With Me” abandoned the swing of Sinatra and cruised along at a more comfortable piece. “Moonlight in Vermont” has nearly the same approach Sinatra used, but Elling bent some of the notes into bluesier feelings.

Similarly, “April in Paris” was a clear bit of Elling interpretation while “Dancing in the Dark” was more a Sinatra swinger.

In whatever form he was using, Elling showed his great vocal abilities. Not only is his voice rich and strong, but he also is a good scat singer with a fine sense of rhythm and groove. Besides his musical skills, he also has a good stage presence, chatting with the audience and explaining what he is doing.

Elling did not accomplish all of this alone, of course. His band was led by Laurence Hobgood, his piano partner for 17 years, who added fine solos on “Come Fly With Me” and the one non-Sinatra song of the first set, “Dedicated to You.” That piece was from Elling’s look at the music of John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman.

The band also featured saxophonist Joel Frahm, one of the busiest players in jazz as an accompanist and as a leader. He added great solos throughout the night, but was perhaps the strongest on “April in Paris” when he and Elling traded statements.

That song also featured guitarist John McLean, who offered a solo over which he vocalized in an almost George Benson-ish way.

Concerts like these are more tributes to jazz and all it is rather than homages to a performer.