Kurt Elling has returned to his Gotham jazz base at Birdland after testing the waters in the more staid confines of the Algonquin Oak Room last winter. Elling defines the fine and often misunderstood art of the jazz singer. He is a fiercely original interpreter of song who boasts a freshly unique and colorful rangy approach to phrasing.
An adventurous lyricist as well, the silky baritone adds his own newly minted text, based on a century-old Turkish poem, to Duke Ellington’s “I Like the Sunrise.” The essence of Ellington’s gorgeous structure is never compromised, and Elling creates a new landscape.
Elling’s satiny sound complements his warming gift for balladry. Old standards surface with a cushiony fresh approach. With “Never Never Land” taken at a jaunty tempo, the dreamscape from “Peter Pan” by Jule Styne, Betty Comden and Adolph Green becomes a picturesque plateau where fantasies just may materialize. In another trip to outer space, Elling takes his listeners on a spiritual journey to a “Stairway to the Stars” with its lofty skyward lyrics by Mitchell Parrish.
With Elling reprising the title tune from his l995 Blue Note debut CD, “Close Your Eyes” seems to define the ardent fulfillment of true romanticism. Before finding his niche in calypso and folk repertoire, Belafonte recorded the ballad for Capitol in the late ’40s. Elling has resurrected the tune and made it a rapturous staple of his repertoire, adding a cunning scat solo braced by Rob Amster’s adventurous bass lines.
Elling calls his new drummer, Willie Jones, “a bad motor scooter who stays on time and reads music!” Jones offered driving support for Elling’s take on Freddie Hubbard’s “Kisses.” As a master of vocalese, Elling takes risks when he adds bold settings to classic jazz charts, and his dexterous experiments work exceedingly well. His longtime accompanist and collaborator Laurence Hobgood lays down a firm foundation and his solo excursions boast bold sweep and stretch.
Elling has developed a keen and gentle sense of both intimacy and swagger in the past decade, and he has fused a tight bond with his audience that is most appealing.