With a bit of retro showmanship, stylish stage patter, a Sinatra tonal quality and a superb backing ensemble that combined members of his own band with local talent, singer Kurt Elling gave the Lied Center for Performing Arts the feel of an intimate Vegas lounge act for about 900 adoring fans.
The evening’s tribute to Ol’ Blue Eyes began with the mid-tempo swinger “Day In, Day Out,” in which Elling immediately approximated Sinatra’s style with a confident, rhythmic swagger. Lincoln trumpet great Darryl White took a brief but spirited solo. The tempo slowed to a mellow pace for “Nice 'n' Easy,” on which Lincoln’s Paul Haar took a warm tenor saxophone solo. Again, it showcased Elling’s chameleonlike vocal similarity to Sinatra. The swagger returned on “Dancing in the Dark,” a bit of exotica that Elling brought to a close with gusto.
Departing from the conventional interpretations of the first three numbers, Elling took up an unusual arrangement of “Moonlight in Vermont” with guitarist John McLean providing thick, resonant chords harmonizing over the melody and a Haar solo that expanded on the reharmonizing effect.
As if to assure his audience, Elling promised that he and the band would not stray too far from the familiar Sinatra tunes, just before launching into another odd arrangement that took liberties with the harmony. This one was a breezy rendition of “Come Fly With Me” that featured pianist Emmet Cohen metaphorically taking flight in a unique, minimalist fashion that sent Elling soaring as he returned to the lyric. Drummer Bryan Carter introduced “April in Paris” with a funky backbeat, and Elling followed with some effortless scat-singing that demonstrated his flexible baritone voice and four-octave range.
Elling opened the second half of the show with “You Are Too Beautiful” in waltz time. McLean’s guitar solo was subtle, with notes tastefully chosen. Lincoln singer Jackie Allen, a former Chicago-area colleague of Elling’s, joined the singer for two duets to great applause from her local fans. Her husband, bassist Hans Sturm, was an excellent addition to the rhythm section for the entire concert. Elling and Allen playfully collaborated on “Where or When” and “I’ve Got a Crush on You,” with the two cooing and exchanging double-entendre lines.
Elling concluded with more Sinatra-style phrasing on “In the Still of the Night,” “I Only Have Eyes for You” and “Too Marvelous for Words.” He engagingly warmed to the audience by sharing a personal story of young love that he experienced during his days as a singing waiter.
Throughout the evening, the musicians served the music, and Elling’s occasional directions. While daring to be different, the arrangements always hewed closely enough to the melodies to be recognized.