12:53 PM CDT, October 22, 2012
Singer Kurt Elling sounded as if he had awoken from a long, deep slumber Sunday evening at City Winery Chicago.
The general torpor of his recordings of recent years, the blandness and anemia of past performances were cast aside for something far more alive, urgent and real. Though Elling no longer can be considered the vocal innovator he was early in his career, this time he brought palpable emotional commitment – and passages of technical bravura, as well – to an often inspiring show.
The source of Elling's rediscovered energy was his newest recording, "1619 Broadway: The Brill Building Project," a somewhat portentously titled album that nonetheless apparently has reinvigorated Elling's approach to song. Embracing music associated with the New York City landmark – once a hub of songwriting, publishing and music distribution – Elling has conceived intriguing, sometimes unconventional readings of a vast range of American repertoire.
His interpretations of this music proved far more adventurous and expansive in concert than on CD, though his voice sounded considerably less sonorous at City Winery than in the warmth of the recording studio.
The former Chicagoan opened his set with "Come Fly With Me," his free-flowing lines and ignore-the-pulse approach to rhythm representing practically the antithesis of Frank Sinatra's exuberantly swung versions. Considering the stature of Sinatra's readings, it was imperative to avoid his impossibly long shadow, and Elling deserves ample credit for finding a way around it. The soaring quality of Elling's lines and the nice-'n'-easy nature of his tempo offered welcome insights into what makes this music work.
If Elling's version of "You Send Me" sounded a tad oleaginous – as if designed for the "smooth jazz" radio format – he made up for it with Duke Ellington's "I Like the Sunrise," delivered as a tribute to the fallen Chicago tenor saxophonist Von Freeman. The jazz legend had encouraged Elling and uncounted other young talents through the decades, and the singer paid homage to the man widely known as "Vonski" with beautifully sustained lines and an unmistakable, smoldering intensity.
It's difficult to think of another jazz singer who has hidden his or her technical prowess as assiduously as Elling has in recent years, as if to make his art more broadly marketable. So to hear Elling finally take vocal flight again in "I'm Satisfied" and "Golden Lady" was to remember what all the fuss was about when he first emerged, in the early 1990s. It has been a long time since listeners have heard Elling cut loose to this degree in concert, and it was quite rewarding to hear.
Less appealing was Elling's recitation of an excerpt of Langston Hughes' essay "Jazz as Communication," which discusses the economic impulses of early jazz musicians. Reading grandiloquently about how his predecessors "were communicating for money," Elling sounded defensive, particularly in light of the commercial considerations that have gone into much of his work of the past several years.
Yet Elling quickly elevated the tone of the evening with a theatrical, impeccably sung version of "Lonely Avenue" and with the dark, brooding tone he brought to "I Only Have Eyes for You."
Through most of the evening, Elling sounded silken in his top register, more resonant than ever in his deepening low notes but thin and a bit worn in his middle voice. Pianist Laurence Hobgood, leading a quartet, and guitarist John McLean enriched the music-making.
If Elling's tambourine-pounding in "Golden Lady" was a bit 1960s – and musically gratuitous – there was no question that the singer was putting more of himself into his work than he has in years.
It's about time.
Kurt Elling performs at 8 p.m. Monday at City Winery Chicago, 1200 W. Randolph St.; $35-$45; 312-733-9462 or citywinery.com.
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