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Innovation and improvisation in town

Fresh from a Grammy win, jazz singer Kurt Elling will bring his four-octave range and much-lauded improvisational skills to Olympia on Thursday as part of the Monterey Jazz Festival on Tour.

The tour also features pianist Kenny Barron, violinist Regina Carter and Grammy-winning guitarist Russell Malone, with bassist Kiyoshi Kitagawa and drummer Johnathan Blake rounding out the lineup.

The resulting concerts blend material from all four co-leaders into new combinations.

“It’s a pretty different experience,” Elling said. “I’m singing material that Regina brought to the table; Regina is playing on stuff from some of my records. It’s a really good experience for people if they want to hear some of their favorite players in a different context.”

The Oakland Examiner dubbed the show “transcendent.” Some critics, though, have written that the performances are polished and accomplished but lack the energetic build-up and release of the best jazz.

For Elling, though, the collaborative nature of the show is part of the challenge – and that’s a good thing. “It’s a lot of fun,” he said. “It’s always good to be challenged.

“In my own shows, I can move things around pretty significantly,” he said. “With this show, there’s not as much that we can change. It’s a collaboration and it’s a collective. It’s good for discipline. You play as well as you can play, and you channel your energy as opposed to having it be more bendable to your own will and your own whim.”

About 20 percent of the show might change night to night, he said. And the plan also has launching pads for spontaneity, including opportunities for Elling to show off the scatting and vocalese that are among his hallmarks.

“Elling was the standout in an evening stacked with inspiring musical talent,” Jon Ross wrote in a review of the Monterey tour’s Atlanta stop (for the blog www.artscriticatl.com). He praised the singer’s energetic scatting on Thelonius Monk’s “Rhythm a Ning.”

Critical acclaim is nothing new for Elling: The New York Times has called him “the standout male jazz vocalist of our time,” and he’d been nominated for nine Grammy Awards before he took the Best Jazz Vocal Album prize for 2009’s “Dedicated to You,” a record of ballads by John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman.

Making a tribute album didn’t come naturally to the singer, who is most interested in innovation.

“The artist’s job is to revere the tradition, to love it, to respect it,” he said in a 2009 interview for WFIU Public Radio’s “Afterglow.” “The way that you revere the innovations of the past is by trying to play something that nobody’s played before. That’s our job.”

And that’s the case even when what’s being played is a standard, and he’s created new lyrics and arrangements for many of those.

“The question is, ‘What does the world sound like to jazz artists right now?’ ” he said in the “Afterglow” interview. “That’s what we’re going for. It’s vital for me to say to myself, ‘What does this music sound like if we base our arrangements on what we hear and what we feel?’ ”

It’s that kind of thinking that led to “Dedicated to You,” which reworked the Coltrane and Hartman pieces for a new generation – and added a string quartet.

The Grammy win for that album hasn’t changed his life – at least, not yet.

“I haven’t even gotten the trophy yet, so I can’t really point to that,” he said. “It takes them a long time to inscribe everybody’s name on those. But it’s definitely better to win than not.”

And for Elling – who is at work on a new album and is known for his compositions, arrangements and lyrics as well as his vocal virtuosity – it’s playing before a live audience that is the most satisfying

“When things are really together, when everything is really rolling and the band is tight and we can just relax and play stuff and improvise together, that’s the most fun,” he said. “Especially when we can do it for a happy audience.”

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