Kurt Elling is a Big Name in jazz. He’s the consummate performer, the professional, and the occasional cheese-ball (but don’t tell him I said so). Originally hailing from Chicago, he’s known for his smooth vocals, high levels of musicianship, and debonair performance style. As a high schooler, I saw Elling for the first time at the Chicago Jazz Festival on the main stage. He donned a white suit and sang Stevie Wonder’s “Golden Lady” with a panache that rarely exists in this age of music. As an aspiring jazz musician myself, I was in awe.
When Elling took the stage at City Winery on Sunday night, I chuckled to myself. The intervening years since high school have made me lose some of my starry-eyed admiration for him. Wearing a brown pin-striped suit and flashing his best Sinatra smile, he crooned “Sing a Christmas Carol,” from his 2016 holiday album The Beautiful Day. Kurt is undeniably talented, but I can’t help but smile to myself when I think of his at times old-fashioned delivery. Ultimately though, it’s the combination of his incredible vocal talent and his incredible band that makes a show a show – and why I couldn’t help but be affected once again by his infectious performance.
Filled with Chicago staples like bassist Clark Sommers, saxophonist John Wojciechowski, and trumpeter Tito Carillo (who teaches at my former university), his bandmates are all at the highest level of musicianship. Along with guitarist John McLean, pianist Stu Mindeman, and drummer Christian Euman, these world-class musicians created an incredible atmosphere to complement Kurt’s vocal delivery and showmanship. Winding through Christmas classics like “Little Drummer Boy” and Donny Hathaway’s “This Christmas,” as well as selections from his upcoming album in April, Kurt showed off his and his band’s improvisational skills. He is a mix of styles, ranging from an 80s jazz feel to the classy stylings of 40s and 50s crooners. His tone is near perfect, and he interprets songs in a fresh and inviting way. Cheese and dad jokes aside, there’s a warmth to Kurt Elling that has kept audiences excited since he first came on the scene.
Watch out for his upcoming album, and catch him on tour.