KURT ELLING recently received his seventh Grammy nomination, and the Chicago-based singer continues to place at the top of both the Down Beat readers' and critics' polls -- a remarkable record of achievement for a performer who has determinedly followed his own path. But his performance at Catalina Bar & Grill on Tuesday demonstrated how meticulously he works at leading his audiences through the colorful areas of his musical journey.
Which is an achievement in itself, because Elling is fashioning a template for jazz singing so unique, so idiosyncratic that it is a stand-alone phenomenon.
True, there is the apparent link with mainstream methods in the sense that familiar songs such as "Detour Ahead" are an intrinsic part of his repertoire, as are his own versions of vocalese based on various instrumental sources (in this performance reaching from Duke Ellington to Freddie Hubbard). What he does with this material, however -- especially the vocalese -- reaches deeply into his own imaginative territory.
Backed by longtime regulars Laurence Hobgood on piano and Rob Amster on bass with added, briskly swinging contributions from Southland drummer Willie Jones III, Elling presented an opening set bristling with variation. Given the range, it's not surprising that some aspects were more successful than others.
His balladry, for example, was articulate, if occasionally emotionally detached. His scatting was a nonstop flow of ideas -- inventive, but in need of more space to breathe and come alive. Best of all, there was Elling's fascination with poetry and his remarkable capacity to use elements from Rainer Maria Rilke, Pablo Neruda and others in utterly compelling fashion.
Interestingly, at a time when the field of male jazz singing has diminished in size (at least compared to the waves of regularly arriving female jazz vocalists), Elling is one of four extraordinarily individual male artists who continue to stretch the boundaries of the jazz vocal art. The other three are veteran performers: Mark Murphy, Andy Bey and Jon Hendricks. And Elling, the youngest of the group, may be doing the most to remove the boundaries completely.