Kurt Elling – review

Ronnie Scott's, London

Kurt Elling is in residence at Ronnie Scott's, though his reputation as one of jazz's all-time great vocalists means that only theft or bribery could now secure a ticket for anyone who has just woken up to it. A singer of astonishing technique and meticulous craft, he has the poetic imagination to turn coy tunes into sinister ones, or torch-song heartaches into raw-nerve nightmares, as well as the jazz skills to improvise with the exultant freedom of a post-Coltrane sax player. All that ability seemed to reach optimum eloquence on last year's album, 1619 Broadway – The Brill Building Project. Now, Elling and his partners (including his alter-ego pianist and arranger, Laurence Hobgood, and bluesy guitarist John McLean) are covering plenty of that repertoire at Ronnie Scott's.

Elling can reveal such unexpected undercurrents in a song that it's tempting to wish he had more of Miles Davis's determination to just let the music talk. The tightrope walk between artist and showman sometimes draws the affable Elling into stagey joshing with the crowd before the spine has stopped tingling from the song he has just delivered. But his reimagining of classic materials always saves the day. A longtime Sinatra fan, he performed Come Fly With Me with an astonishing airborne freedom, stretching just the word "air" through so many soaring upswings and diving, rolling descents that you could almost hear the rush of the wind. Sam Cooke's You Send Me was almost as gratefully dazzled as it is on the album, before the vocal gymnastics of Samurai Cowboy triumphantly emerged from a scanty beatbox exchange with drummer Kendrick Scott. Elling and a classically graceful Hobgood made a beautiful job of A House Is Not a Home, as did the whole band for On Broadway, with its threatening abstract sounds, and transformation of the message into one of bruised hope rather than can-do certainty. A jazz singer to the core, Elling is a charismatic ambassador for the music wherever he goes.

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John Fordham

The GuardianTramp

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