While rock and classical music boast an intimidating array of great singers, the pantheon of jazz vocalists seems rather small. Given the improvisatory demands of the genre, this should be no surprise. Along with hitting the notes and remembering the words, jazz singers are expected to improvise, phrasing the lyrics before, through, or after the beat. Some singers also incorporate vocal techniques like falsetto, vocalise (wordlessly careening through the melody), and scatting (no, not coprophilia, but exuberant, usually rapid-fire nonsense syllables). A few concoct new lyrics on the spot, like the blues shouters of yore.
Male jazz vocalists face an additional challenge. Aspiring female jazz singers can model their voices on any one or more of a long list of greats (starting with the peerless Ella Fitzgerald, then Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, Abbey Lincoln, and more recently, the elastic acrobatics of Anita Baker and the severely underrated Sade), but every male jazz vocalist must confront that swingin' 500 lb. gorilla: Frank Sinatra. The history-minded can cite Louis Armstrong, Billy Eckstine, Mel Tormé, Tony Bennett (and even obscure cats like Babs Gonzales and Kenny Hagood) all they want, but the ubiquity of Frank Sinatra has exerted an enormous, unshakable influence.
I'm not foolish enough to proclaim Kurt Elling the new jazz vocal messiah; after a clutch of records, including the marvelous Flirting with Twilight on Blue Note, it's too late for that. Yet he is the first male jazz singer I've heard in a long time who is not beholden to the ghost of Ol' Blue Eyes. From courageously sustained notes and dexterous, on-the-money vocalise to gutsy falsettos and soulful phrasing that shuns cocktail clichés, Elling sounds fresh and new.
Kurt Elling and the Laurence Hobgood Trio perform Tues-Sun July 23-28. Sets start at 8 and 10 pm, except for Sun when the evening's lone set starts at 7 pm. Jazz Alley, 2033 Sixth Ave, 441-9729, $21.50-$17.50.