Music preview: Kurt Elling to croon classic Sinatra songs

When vocalist Kurt Elling was last in Pittsburgh, he sang with the Bob Mintzer Big Band at the Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild Jazz Hall.
He’ll be back there for two shows Saturday but in a much different setting — with just a backing quintet. And the setting isn’t casual, either.

Saturday’s concerts recall the 50th anniversary of a 16-nation tour that Frank Sinatra did to raise money for children’s charities. Those shows represent “some of the very, very few recordings with Sinatra with a small group,” Mr. Elling says. “It was the original large group recording scaled down for a sextet. They hadn’t been released until about five years ago.”

Born in Chicago and reared in Rockford, Ill., the 44-year-old Mr. Elling’s father was a church musician; the younger Mr. Elling played several instruments himself and sang in choirs but became interested in jazz in high school. While enrolled in graduate school at the University of Chicago, he fell in with several jazz musicians who encouraged him in his singing. “[They told me,] ‘You’re really good at this. You should be a part of this.’ ”

Realizing that he couldn’t sing and study, Mr. Elling decided to leave school just short of earning his degree because “eventually, the music was ultimately more satisfying.” He says that he has never regretted that decision. Along with Mr. Mintzer, Mr. Elling over the years also has worked with Terence Blanchard, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock and Fred Hersch.

Mr. Elling, who has recorded 10 albums as a leader and more than twice that many as a sideman, says that he has always “written new material that pushes the envelope that at the same time relates to that older material.”

For Saturday’s shows, emulating Mr. Sinatra in 1962, Mr. Elling promises brand-new, stripped-down arrangements of classic charts by Nelson Riddle and Billy Mays, such as “Come Fly With Me” and “Moonlight in Vermont.”