Kurt Elling’s 25th Anniversary Virtual Tour: Steppin’ Out While Stayin’ In

If all was right with the world, jazz vocalist Kurt Elling would be celebrating the 25th anniversary of Close Your Eyes — his first album on the Blue Note label — before a packed house at the Green Mill Cocktail Lounge, the legendary club in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood that was his home base at the start of his career and for many years after. Elling, after all, has made a major imprint in the jazz world, nominated for 12 Grammys and winning one for his 2009 album Dedicated to You: Kurt Elling Sings the Music of Coltrane and Hartman.

All is not right in the world, though, during this year of COVID. Yet Elling is making the best of it with the Kurt Elling Cocktail Hour 25th Anniversary Virtual Tour — a series of five concerts live-streamed from the Green Mill, which began in glorious form this past Friday and continues on October 16, 23 and 30 and November 13.

Elling embraces what he sees as his obligation, as a professional communicator, to provide uplift and consolation in the midst of a historic crisis. “I’m singing in a specific time to a specific audience that’s also living through that time. So it behooves me and my soul to communicate some of my feelings about how it is and try to help everybody through it,” Elling said in an interview with Jason Marck on the WBEZ program Reset.

And he decided to ride out the storm in Chicago, moving back here with his wife this summer after a 12-year sojourn in New York City: “This is the dream city of my youth. At this crucial time, I want to be here in this town to help defend my city. I want to be here to share the suffering and the victories,” he told Marck.

He said his concert series is designed to help ensure Chicago its rightful place in the pantheon of jazz hot spots at a time when, thanks to the internet, the international jazz community is more connected than ever before. Of the Green Mill, he said he wanted “to give back to the spot that gave me a lift.” And during the interview and Friday’s concert, he made an appeal for the proposed federal Save Our Stages legislation that would provide $10 billion in aid to independent live music venues that are at risk of closing permanently because of devastating COVID-related financial losses.

Elling opened Friday’s show with “The Ballad of the Sad Young Men” — a song written by Fran Landesman — that reflected the melancholy mood of the moment, prefacing that he could “feel it hurting young people in a special kind of way.” A moody version of “When That Sun Comes Out,” written by Ted Koehler and Harold Arlen, followed.

Then Elling shifted dramatically into upbeat mode with a cover of “Steppin’ Out,” the 1982 hit song by Joe Jackson, which enabled listeners to close their eyes and imagine a taxi ride to a club like… the Green Mill. The baritone swung into the piece, exercising his four-octave range. He also exhibited his flair for scat singing, in which his voice became an instrument supplementing the superb work of his three-man combo of Dana Hall on drums, Clark Summers on bass and Stu Mindeman on piano.

The trio was also joined on stage during the second half of the 75-minute show by trumpeter Marquis Hill, who on Saturday kicked off a companion series of concerts, featuring local artists, that is part of the 25th Anniversary Virtual Tour. The series will feature vocalist Lizz Wright on October 17 and drummer/”beat scientist” Makaya McCraven on October 24.

While Elling included “I Like the Sunrise,” a classic that Duke Ellington wrote for Frank Sinatra in 1968, in his set list, his performance of the song “O My God” again exhibited the eclectic nature of his sources and styles: The piece was written by Sting and recorded by The Police in 1983.

It also underscored the deeply rooted spiritual nature of much of Elling’s work. Born in Chicago in 1967, he was raised in the Lutheran faith in Rockford and sang in church choirs. He also joined the choir at Gustavus Adolphus College in Minnesota, but fell in love with jazz while doing undergraduate work there.

He started doing jazz gigs while studying for a master’s at University of Chicago Divinity School and left one credit short of graduation, as he has said, giving up Sunday morning for Saturday night. The world of jazz is grateful that he did.