REVIEW: Kurt Elling At Café Carlyle, ‘Swings Sinatra’

Paying tribute to Frank Sinatra and observing his centenary, Grammy Award-winning vocalist Kurt Elling filled the Café Carlyle with jazz and romance in his debut at the historic venue on October 13. The delightful evening (Elling Swings Sinatra) gave new inspiration to well-known standards with Mr. Elling's unique arrangements, while still channeling the spirit and energy of Mr. Sinatra. Elling is one of today's greatest jazz vocalists, and he utilizes his vocal instrument with great dexterity, and a flair for scatting through his range of octaves.
Frank Sinatra was well-known as having several big hit standards in his repertoire that go hand in hand with his name, and Elling got the evening underway with the famous “Come Fly With Me” (Jimmy Van Heusen, Sammy Cahn). Playing off of one of Sinatra's greatest hits, Elling's unique arrangement added a new essence of jazz to the sound, while suspending the phrases through time as his vocals flowed through a range of notes matching the tone and energy of the musician's instruments. A beautiful musical interlude was played with skill and nimbleness by pianist Gary Versace as Elling and the other musicians moved gently to the beat, tapping their toes to the smooth rhythms. Elling rode on the legato qualities of Mr. Versace's phrasing as he eased back into the vocals with a stunning ease of transition.

The night's entertainment presented the audience with a mix of songs stylistically, and the wide range of styles showcased each musician's skill and technique as they played through the varied repertoire. The classic “Around the World” (Harold Adamson, Victor Young) offered a nice modernized version of the standard appreciated by fans of Sinatra. Elling's arrangement was set at a steady pace, complementing the jazz atmosphere of the room. It brought out a new essence and a modern flavor to the song, while still holding on to the classic melody of the number.

Tying the songs together, Elling captivated the room's attention with stories on their history, and little tidbits from his own life and how they related to what he was singing. One of the standout numbers was the 1934 “I Only Have Eyes For You,” by Harry Warren and Al Dubin. Elling told of how he turned on the car radio looking for music to cover up the lack of conversation on a date, and the song came over the radio being sung by Sinatra. Suddenly the right words were there. Elling's arrangement of “I Only Have Eyes For You” was intriguing and mesmerizing, and showcased how he could use his wide range of octaves.

Another highlight of the evening was “April In Paris” (Vernon Duke, E.Y. Harburg). Elling went back and forth between singing and scatting with great proficiency, and he played off of the musicians and how they were relating to him. Elling and Jared Schonig (drums) had a playful and friendly exchange as they tried to one up the other with the creative ways in which they could use their respective instruments. The two went back and forth, building the number up in energy and never missing a beat as they transitioned from one idea to the next. A classy and new take on the elegant number.

Elling sang a slow and sultry arrangement of “I'm A Fool To Want You” (Frank Sinatra, Jack Wolf, Joel Herron), which was first recorded by Frank Sinatra in March of 1951. Sinatra had hit a low spell in popularity and in his personal life around this time, and it would be a few years before his career would pick up again. Elling's arrangement played with the musicality of the musicians, and highlighted the very talented and versatile bass player Clark Sommers. Mr. Sommers showcased his skill and style, including his incredible versatility between the transitions throughout this number, as well as in the rest of the repertory of the evening.

Solo moments were given throughout the evening to each of the musicians, and they all showed a great deal of passion and energy as they took control of their respective moments in the spotlight. They never wavered in their playing, and they showed how focused and passionate they are about what it is they do. Each musician responded and reacted to one another as if they were having a conversation. A clear sense of admiration and respect came across from each musician, as well as how they worked with Mr. Elling. The musicians are Clark Sommers (bass), John McLean (guitar), Jared Schonig (drums), Wayne Tucker (trumpet), Troy Roberts (tenor sax), and Gary Versace (piano).

Elling Swings Sinatra came to a close with “In The Wee Small Hours of the Morning” (Bog Hilliard, David Mann), where Mr. Elling and Mr. Versace introduced the number with their own arrangement inspired by the popular tune, before seamlessly easing into the popular number. The perfect song for the ending of a delightful evening. Other numbers performed throughout the evening included “In The Still of the Night” (Cole Porter), “Nice and Easy” (Alan Bergman, Marilyn Keith, Lew Spence), “You Are Too Beautiful” (Richard Rodgers, Lorenz Hart), “I Have Dreamed” (Oscar Hammerstein II, Richard Rodgers), and “Too Marvelous For Words” (Richard Whiting, Johnny Mercer).