TX:Presented inhouse. Reviewed Feb. 5, 1996. There’s a minor encyclopedia of ideas regarding jazz, singing and presentation floating around Kurt Elling’s head. That he has the chutzpah to put them all out there at once speaks volumes about the nature of this Chicago singer, a rare breed in the dwindling field of male jazz vocalists. The Catalina gig was the first of Elling’s monthlong tour of L.A. jazz clubs, coffeehouses and nightspots — a celebration, of sorts, of his Grammy nomination in the solo jazz vocal category. Despite a light turnout, Elling fearlessly started with a poetry reading (shades of Mark Murphy), improvised his way beyond the lyrics he had already penned for Wayne Shorter’s “Dolores Dream” and took a dramatic turn sans microphone that showed how clear his articulation can be.
He borrows liberally from the groundbreaking women artists, most specifically Betty Carter, to create his own melange that includes soundscapes as disparate as free jazz and softly swinging standards. He scats in a middle register, working his voice as a horn rather than as a barometer of his range. Wordy, original songs that run long, linear and hilly courses filled Monday’s set, suggesting Elling wants literary room to move rather than present a treatise on vocalese. With Dave Carpenter’s bass work keeping the evening grounded, Elling painted a series of vibrant pictures.
The singer thoroughly avoids even a hint of the blues, a move augured by pianist Laurence Hobgood’s instrumental introduction — an airy and light-footed version of “The Way You Look Tonight.” And only when he turns to music by an established vocalist, in this case Sting, does his individuality get usurped by the material and the breathy presentation that stayed too close to the original.