Rare jazz singer lives up to hyperbolic praise

4 1/2 stars out of five
It’s an awful lot to live up to.

These days, Chicago’s Kurt Elling is routinely touted as the best male jazz singer living. The man who’s netted a fistful of Grammy nods and Downbeat awards touched down in Victoria last night for a 90-minute concert.

Did he live up to the hype? Yep. Sure did.

Elling, 39, is poised to release a new disc, Nightmoves, on the Concord label. His set sampled generously from this. We heard, for example, the bossa nova If You Never Come to Me, Betty Carter’s Hold on Tight, And We Will Fly, Where Are You (with Elling’s lyrics, based on a Dexter Gordon melody) and an epic version of Body and Soul (once more with new Elling lyrics, based on yet another Gordon solo).

The band was simply splendid. Longtime pianist Laurence Hobgood is a wonder — a delicate, elegant player with a style understated yet romantic. Bassist Rob Amster’s thoughtful melodicism was a wonderful fit, and Willie Jones’ complex drumming was variously sensitive and fiery.

The show, of course, was Elling, looking sharp in an Edwardian-length black jacket. His singing is a rare thing, combining technical precision, tonal beauty and sharp rhythmic instincts with a certain feline-like grace and adventurousness.

Often, his clarity and accuracy suggested different types of horns. He leapt from note to note like a pouncing cat; elsewhere he enveloped everything with a blissful legato ease, contorting his body and face around the microphone as though molding his very being around the notes.

A restless, ambitious soul, Elling seemingly does it all: scatting, vocalese (in which words are set to existing instrumental solos), Sinatra-like balladry and unabashedly poetic literary experiments.

The Waking, also from Nightmoves, is in the latter category. Set to a 1953 poem by Theodore Roethke, it’s a dreamy rumination on nature and existence. Arranged simply for bass and voice with a loose pop feel, it was a fine showcase for Elling’s handsome timbre, which is resonant and at times slightly gritty.

When everything works — and it often did — it was a truly exhilarating experience. At least one audience member hooted in delight at Elling’s crowd-pleasing version of Bye Bye Blackbird. In mid-song the singer stood on his toes to scoop up an impossibly high note (he reportedly has a four-octave range), then bounced into a virtuoso scat-fest — a jazzman’s grab-bag of tenor sax honks, trumpet flourishes and what-have-you. With some it would be a novelty… with Elling it was a wonder.

One might quibble about the melodic repetition of his ultra-long Body and Soul. And some may have found his Portugese-language rendition of Luiza a bit over-the-top in a breast-beating kind of way (although it was extremely well sung). Overall, however, Elling’s sheer talent and bona fide artistry wins us over nine times out of 10.