Kurt Elling: Sheer talent and boundless imagination

There's no question that Kurt Elling is at the very top of the heap in the world of male jazz vocalists, and if you need proof, just take a look at the numbers. He's won the annual Downbeat Critics' Poll in each of the past 13 years, and each of his 10 albums has been nominated for a Grammy Award.
At the intimate Swyer Theatre at The Egg on Sunday evening, he proved it once again – not with numbers this time, but rather with a powerhouse performance that shined the spotlight on his sheer talent and boundless imagination.

He opened his show with the most traditional jazz standard of his set, “Come Fly With Me,” but his approach to the tune was a 180-degree turn-around from Frank Sinatra's signature rendition. Where Sinatra tackled the tune as a brash and brassy swing anthem, Elling took a decidedly more subtle approach, allowing his invitation to glide oh-so-gently rather than rocket into the stratosphere, his vocals floating almost weightless over his quartet's churning rhythms. Then he turned things around with Sam Cooke's “You Send Me,” leaning hard into the slinky backbeat pumped out by bassist Clark Sommers and drummer Quincy Davis. Davis took the spotlight once again on the surreal hipster ode “Samurai Cowboy,” opening the tune in a sparkling call-and-response duet with the ever-inventive scat singing of Elling, who at one point took a solo – and a damn good one – that consisted of nothing more than rubbing the microphone on the sleeve of his jacket.

At times it seemed that Elling was speaking in tongues, as he seamlessly slid from song lyrics to scat singing to pure vocalization, utilizing deft microphone control and an endless array of sonic and tempo changes.

Elling's most recent album, last year's “1619 Broadway,” is an homage to the Brill Building, where so many of New York City's greatest songwriters worked their craft in the '50s and '60s – “the people who wrote the songs that you know all the words to… whether you like it or not,” he explained. And not surprisingly those songs provided the bulk of his repertoire on Sunday, from the languid, sensual swoop of the Flamingos' “I Only Have Eyes for You” to the joyous, gospelesque celebration of Stevie Wonder's “Golden Lady,” emboldened by pianist Laurence Hobgood's most scintillating solo of the evening.

Elling mined Carole King's “So Far Away” for every ounce of melancholy, re-modeling the melody and dancing on the edge of a minor key. For sheer radical re-invention, however, Leiber and Stoller's “On Broadway” took the cake, with an experimental arrangement that veered from Tuvan throat singing to guitarist John McLean's deliciously outside-the-box solo to unison progressive-rock-fusion riffing, the fractured song deconstruction bearing almost no resemblance to the Drifters' hit single.

And for his final encore, Elling proved that he could play it relatively straight, too, serving up a sublime, Portuguese-language rendition of Jobim's love ballad “Luiza,” accompanied only by Hobgood's aching piano work.