DECATUR – Kurt Elling knows he will never out-Sinatra Frank Sinatra.
But as a Grammy Award winning and internationally renowned jazz vocalist, Elling being himself is a pretty good thing.
Elling will take on the catalog of Ol' Blue Eyes himself this Saturday night at the Kirkland Fine Arts Center in a celebration of the year Sinatra would have turned 100.
“Oh, we're gonna have a ball,” Elling said. “We'll have a hot band, and it'll be tunes that those from Sinatra's era are gonna know all the words to. It'll also be songs re-arranged in a way that I think a lot of young people will be turned on by how we approach that material.”
The source for the Sinatra set actually came to Elling four years ago, as he worked on a set of Sinatra songs to bring attention to the 50th anniversary of a world tour undertaken by Sinatra. While the personal life of the self-described 'overindulgent adult' took many of the era's headlines, Elling said he was fascinated by the way Sinatra toured the world and helped to raise money for children' charities in the areas he performed.
“He paid attention to the papers and the pain in the world,” Elling said. “That's an unsung event in Sinatra's life, everyone wants to focus on the glamor, the music and the personal life tragedies, but here was something where I felt it was a real display of Sinatra's generosity.”
When the centennial came around this year, Elling felt it made sense to bring back some of those arrangements, as well as new takes on classic Sinatra, and perform in honor of the jazz great.
And though it has been nearly 17 years since Sinatra's death, his music can still be found in all parts of modern culture, from movies to television and covers of the songs he made famous.
For Elling, it's a sign that Sinatra was the sound and embodiment of 20th century America.
“He had the swagger when we had the swagger, the confidence when we had that; elements of naivety and foolishness, which we also had,” Elling said. “ But really, it was the swagger and the feeling that we were undefeated. And Sinatra, for all of his public defeats, he kept on rising up. I think he displayed in so many ways the way America viewed itself at the time.”
While the accomplishments of Sinatra could be read off for days, Elling has established his own legacy. Aside from the Grammy win for best jazz vocal album, Elling has won every DownBeat Critics Poll for the last 14 years and has been named 'Male Singer of the Year' by the Jazz Journalists Association eight times in that same span. Each of Elling's ten albums has been nominated for a Grammy.
The Decatur stop will be the first U.S. stop for Elling after a month-long tour of Europe. While he loves the chance to play across the world, the Chicago native said it's a special thing to come back to his home state.
“Man, it's always good to come home. I have so many great friends here,” he said. “And it's always a thrill to come back and have some new material lined up for those who may have seen us before in the past.”