Kurt Elling pays tribute to Sinatra

He was known as “The Voice.” And Kurt Elling remembers how, when he was a child, those vocal cords stood out.
Elling, the son of a high school band instructor, often listened to the music his parents played on the family stereo. His father favored swing and big band, which meant that Steve Lawrence, Vic Damone and assorted members of the Rat Pack were staples.

The young Elling's ears, though, would perk up at one particular set of pipes.

“Sinatra would come on, and you would think, 'That's the guy,'” he said.

This year, Frank Sinatra, who died in 1998, would have turned 100. And Elling, a Grammy-winning performer in his own right, has a special tribute planned for his musical role model. Last week, he launched “Elling Swings Sinatra,” a touring show of Ol' Blue Eyes classics. He'll bring it to the Segerstrom Center for the Arts on Friday and Saturday.

It's far from the only fete honoring Sinatra this year. The Hollywood Bowl has a centennial celebration planned for July 22, with Elling among the featured artists. Even Bob Dylan, an artist only occasionally inclined toward other people's songs, released a Sinatra tribute album, “Shadows in the Night,” this month.

The Sinatra family, in partnership with Frank Sinatra Enterprises, has announced “Sinatra 100,” a year of commemorative events that range from a Grammy Museum exhibit in New York to a London stage production. In May, UCLA Extension instructor Earl Schub plans to offer a course titled “Why Sinatra Matters.”

So why, in a word, does Sinatra matter?

Schub, who worked for opera companies in the past, said he encountered singers years ago who named the performer as a key influence — both for vocal projection and lyrics interpretation. In addition to his vocal brilliance, Schub said, Sinatra had a knack for matching songs to the right arranger. When he's given Sinatra lectures in the past, Schub has played the singer's tracks back to back with the same songs recorded by other vocalists to show the difference.

“He painted pictures with his voice and his attention to the lyrics,” Schub said. “When it came to singing, as he himself said, 'When I sing, I'm honest.' He was a very honest singer.”

Elling — whose most recent album, the covers collection “1619 Broadway: The Brill Building Project,” came out in 2012 — aims for that honesty as well, and he's got the notices to show for it. AllMusic.com proclaims him “in a league of his own” as a jazz vocalist and notes that an Elling show “can contain ranting beat poetry, dramatic and poignant readings of Rilke, and hard-swinging scat.”

Sinatra's influence, Elling said, isn't hard to detect even half a century after his artistic prime.

“There are leagues and leagues of guys out there who can't really escape the shadow that they're under, and you certainly see it in popular music,” he said. “There's Bob Dylan putting out a Sinatra record and Rod Stewart having a career revival with — well, they're supposed to be 'Songbook' records, but, really, they're Sinatra knockoff records.”

Of course, as Elling noted, any tribute to the Chairman of the Board must content itself with knockoff status.

“I'll never out-Sinatra Sinatra,” he said. “And nobody ever will.”