Kurt Elling’s stage persona is an uneasy mix of cabaret MC and inveterate jazzer. His opening words – “Hello London. We’re ready for you. Are you ready for us?” – sat oddly with drummer Ulysses Owens Jr’s perfectly crisp foreshortened press roll introduction. Classy jazz was soon to follow, not least from his immaculate rhythm section, and later, accordionist Richard Galliano added muscle. But once the music kicked in, it was Elling himself who carried the torch, pitch-perfect from falsetto to bass and giving each syllable full measure.
Elling’s great strength is his taste, technique and control. His voice is somewhat neutral in tone, but powerful across his extensive range; he swoops through the registers with ease and articulates cleanly at speed. Melodies are decorated, altered and toyed with, but never at the expense of the original lyric, and even his scat singing fits neatly over the underlying chord structure.
Both sets featured songs from his multi-sourced album The Gate. King Crimson’s “Matte Kudasai” was a spiritual feature for guitarist John McLean in the first set, and in the second set The Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood” and Stevie Wonder’s “Golden Lady” both featured. The Songbook was represented through the haunting “Nature Boy”, a quirky “April in Paris” and the encore, a lovely flute-supported reading of the ballad “My Foolish Heart”. Elling is also a clever lyricist: the stream-of-consciousness lines of “Samurai Cowboy” and the sharp rhymes on Galliano’s “Billie” were a neat fit.
The intimate first set supported Elling with his regular band led by long-term collaborator Laurence Hobgood. The pianist’s subtle voicings, masked discords and hip rhythms found exactly the right emphasis in drummer Owen’s dynamics and pulse. Galliano consistently threatened to upstage his host, weaving his trademark tapestry of shimmering runs, delicate scampers and plangent chords, and provided the highlight moment in the first set finale, “Resolution” from John Coltrane’s seminal album A Love Supreme.
The second set introduced the disciplined riffs and sumptuous swing of the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra, led by the pyrotechnical saxophonist Tommy Smith. Elling’s vocals soared to even greater heights, caressed torchsong ballads and dabbled in nifty duets, but I left wondering why his extraordinary technique was tied to such a literal reading: the effect is to emphasise the superficiality of many of the lyrics.