Kurt Elling told the crowd at the Egg’s Swyer Theater on Sunday night that it was “good to see all the jazz people come out, even on a school night,” calling jazz fans the “hippest, smartest, and sexiest” people.
The standout jazz vocalist opened with “Come Fly with Me.” He did not treat it like the popular Sinatra standard. Elling treats jazz like fine art, using his far-ranging baritone to explore a few octaves with every line. He let his pianist Lawrence Hobgood play an inventive solo before Elling followed with a few verses of scat, not the classic Ella Fitzgerald scat, though that came later, but an odd, avant-garde style.
“Thank you, good night,” he said after exuberant applause. It could have been the last song of the night, given its excitement.
He followed with Sam Cooke’s doo-woppy “Send Me,” not something you’d expect Elling to sing, nor his highly-skilled quartet to play. They gave it a rock beat, an out-there Alan Holdsworth-like guitar solo, and high-ranging improvising from Elling.
George Bensen’s “On Broadway” was certainly recognizable when Elling sang the words, but this happened for maybe 15 percent of the song. Instead, they centered on a riff they teased out of the song we would never have found ourselves.
“We saved our best notes for tonight,” he told the audience, adding they’ve been traveling since January, “to get ready for tonight in Albany.” It was easy to believe him at the end of the night.
The songs he played are from his most recent release, “1619 Broadway — The Brill Building Project.” The title refers to the midtown New York building that housed the source for countless hits from 1940s to 1970s.
This included Carole King’s “So Far Away.” Elling sang a beautiful version of this ballad, not too far from the original.
He and the band cooked on a straight-up swing version of “Satisfied.” Elling took the first solo on this one, showing the dexterity of his voice and the skill of his scatting — creative syllables, wild speed, circular concepts and an ability to drive the band. He is a hard-working, phenomenal soloist who could rival the power and range of any horn with his voice.
While he filled the night with a lot of different styles, it seemed the sweet spot for him and his band were these traditional swing tunes. We didn’t get many of them unfortunately.
He sang “Lonely Avenue.” “That didn’t make it on the album, but I wish it did, but I didn’t think of it on time,” he said.
He closed the set with Stevie Wonder’s “Golden Lady,” not far from the Motown original. The band cooked on this one, led by Hobgood’s piano playing. Then Davis took a drum solo within the structure of the song. Elling whooped and shouted through this drum solo, then started singing and dancing with the solo, as if he couldn’t contain himself, until the drums faded and he was singing on his own. Then the whole band smashed back in to finish the hottest tune of the night.
Every one of Elling’s 10 albums have been nominated for a Grammy Award. This is not by luck, or sales, or connections. Elling has set the standard for male jazz vocals today. The Egg show Sunday night gave us world-class singing and a state-of-the-art jazz quartet.