Kurt Elling: His own man, artistically speaking
Part of the reason that master musician Kurt Elling tends to hog the best-of magazine polls, Grammy dealings, and generally sweep up accolades as jazz’ greatest living male vocalist has to do with what he is not. Which is to say, unlike singers such as Harry Connick, Jr., Michael Buble, and John Pizzarelli, Mr. Elling is not a pseudo-Sinatra at the core.
Instead, he is his own man, artistically speaking, who has spent 15-ish years in public creating a powerfully persuasive and still evolving style. Tuesday night at the Lobero Theatre, Mr. Elling put on an almost unerringly powerful performance, and this in the wake of what may be his finest album to date, “The Gate” (Concord). The Chicagoan showed his maturing mastery through two sets and with an uncommonly fine band, led by his longstanding right-hand pianist, Laurence Hobgood.
As heard on Tuesday, the 45-year-old singer makes nods to various influences, including early hero Mark Murphy and Johnny Hartman â€” who he paid tribute to on his Grammy-winning album “Dedicated to You.” In support of that album, he played the Lobero two years ago, a fine show, but not nearly as focused and self-defining as Tuesday’s. And yes, we can hear some measure of Sinatra-esque qualities, not only musically, but in his hepcat retro swagger-patter, proudly channeling Beat poetry and ’60s-era Rat Pack suavity.
But never mind the spoken-word bits and between-song banter. Mr. Elling reaches the deepest when he sets his mind and voice to song, not to mention scatting of a high, virtuosic and anti-corny order. He excels at spontaneously twining his way around songs we know, approaching them with surprising angles, as he did with the opening re-think of “Moonlight Serenade” and a fast-bop matrix capped off with the melody of “Straight No Chaser” in the second set.
Pop songs made their way into the mix, as well, but dressed up in artistic, jazz-istic ways. For the evening’s second song, Mr. Elling called on the Joe Jackson tune “Steppin’ Out,” from his new album, emphasizing an ear-tugging minor third tone.
Bassist Harish Raghavan was tapped for one of his seamless solos on the tune “Samurai Cowboy,” with a new Elling lyric â€” riffing about the “life of the mind” â€” on bassist Marc Johnson’s cool oldy “Samurai Hee Haw.” That tune was capped off with an elastic tete a tete between the singer, sometimes imitating a tabla, and drummer Ulysses Owens Jr., a powerful but also subtle player who does wonders with brushes and blastix.
Mr. Hobgood, one of those underrated pianists in jazz, is a versatile foil and ally for the singer, whose role in this current record/tour phase includes tasty and burning piano work â€” as both soloist and sensitive vocalist comper â€” and scintillating new arrangement of the Beatles jewel “Norwegian Wood.” As Mr. Elling jested, that cover choice came from the “steal from the rich department,” but comes spiced up with syncopated melody contours and a re-harmonized bridge section.
This was also the point at which guest guitarist John McLean joined the band, delivering a fascinating and snaky distortion-colored solo reminiscent of John Scofield. Other guitar work this night went down a more clean-toned, mainstream jazz road, as when he segued and harmonically down-shifted from a guitar solo into a hushed voice-guitar duet of “Skylark.”
To these ears, the emotive pinnacle of the evening came with the new version of the great old Earth, Wind and Fire ballad “After the Love Has Gone,” also a highlight of the new Elling album. The innately great ’70s tune arrived in new duds as a jazz waltz, in a remarkable yet logical transformation, which found Mr. Elling winding his limber voice around brooding and yearning lines, giving new meaning to the lyric.
In fact, R&B of the ’70s also figures into Mr. Elling’s musical persona, even if he has assiduously avoided the temptation of selling out to pop interests in his career thus far. The title track to his album “Dedicated to You,” sported some of his Stevie Wonder-esque licks, an influence later brought center stage in the concert’s grand finale, Mr. Wonder’s “Golden Lady” (yet another prize track on “The Gate”).
For an encore, Mr. Elling brought the mood down for a grace note exit strategy, with a vocal-piano run-through of the Jobim lovely “Luiza.”
On a bittersweet note, Mr. Elling’s command performance here was the finishing touch on the current “Jazz at the Lobero” series, in this venue which has been recently anointed by Down Beat magazine as one of America’s finer places to hear jazz (full disclosure: that recommendation came by this scribe and Down Beat contributor, and it’s truer than true). Mr. Elling is yet another jazz artist who feels right at home in this room. May he become a regular so we can keep tabs on the man’s creative progress, in our own town.