When Grammy-winning jazz “vocalese” performer Kurt Elling sauntered onto the stage at the Lobero Theatre on a sleepy Tuesday night, April 19, he almost instantly enraptured the stoic crowd with his larger-than-life cool cat personality.
Elling began the first of two sets exhibiting a carefree, happy-go-lucky attitude most closely associated with modern live jazz music. The baritone singer with a four-octave range has brought the art of scat singing back to the forefront of contemporary jazz music.
“Vocalese” is sort of a rap scat singing style that blends lyrics with vocal intonations that resemble musical instruments. Elling bounces his vocals off the music created by his immensely talented band of innovative jazz musicians.
The backing group began as a trio with Laurence Hobgood (who Elling has been collaborating with since the dawn of his musical career in 1995) on piano, Harish Raghavan on bass and Ulysses Owens Jr. on drums. They were joined later by electrifying guitar player John Mclean.
All of the musicians in his quartet exhibited stunning jazz abilities, highlighted by impromptu solos throughout the evening. But it was the masterful mix of amazing vocal talents and storytelling skills by Elling himself that kept the audience mesmerized throughout the three-hour-plus marathon concert.
Elling’s set list included inspirations and covers from more than 50 years of modern pop music. The first set was highlighted by some of the cover songs on his latest album, The Gate, including masterful versions of Joe Jackson’s “Steppin Out” and The Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood.” Produced by the legendary Don Was, the album features an array of covers from modern pop groups as diverse as King Crimson and Stevie Wonder.
The second set was highlighted by longer anecdotes about what it means to be a true jazz music fan or musician. Elling painted whimsical portraits of late-night jazz enclaves, in prose skills, rivaling those of Garrison Keillor. Then Elling followed up his stories with elegant experimental jazz soirees, channeling influences as far back as Count Basie and the big-band era, and all the way forward to the modern pop on his new recording.
The “true jazz people” who stuck it out for the second set were treated to a veritable smorgasbord of modern jazz sounds, redefining the meaning of contemporary jazz today.