Kurt Elling: Flirting With Twilight

With Flirting With Twilight, his most assured and accomplished album to date, Kurt Elling continues his triumphant reign as the thinking man’s jazz vocalist. Focusing almost exclusively on standards, the erudite Chicagoan can polish even the most well-worn chestnut to a brilliant shine. Like Mark Murphy, against whom Elling is often measured, he is blessed with the all too rare ability to electrify a lyric with an emotional charge that is at once unique and appropriate.

Eschewing the traditional laid-back treatment that the title suggests, Elling transforms “Easy Living” into a joyful, boisterous salute to unconstrained love. On “You Don’t Know What Love Is,” he moves past mere moroseness to explore the sort of naked fear that verges on madness, while drummer Peter Erskine’s urgent heartbeat hauntingly underscores the lyric’s lonely desperation. Blending “I Get Along Without You Very Well” seamlessly with “Blame It on My Youth,” he uses the trumped up machismo of the first to punctuate the callow culpability of the latter. Sondheim’s “Not While I’m Around,” usually interpreted as a plaintive paean to martyrdom, is refreshingly presented as a straightforward statement of fact: I love you and will, therefore, protect you.

Much of the Elling magic is also attributable to his ability to choose the ideal musical cohorts. Here, in addition to Erskine, his superb sextet includes trumpeter Clay Jenkins, bassist Marc Johnson, saxophonists Jeff Clayton and Bob Sheppard and the backbone of the Elling camp, pianist/arranger Laurence Hobgood.

It has often been suggested that Elling owes a debt of gratitude to Baker, Fitzgerald, Sinatra and such. Instead, those departed heroes (or, at least, their fans) should be thanking Elling for so ably upholding their hard-won victories of taste and talent over commercial compromise.