Christmas came early to Ronnie Scott's this year. American singer Kurt Elling's latest release, The Beautiful Day, subtitled Kurt Elling Sings Christmas, reimagines more than a dozen seasonally themed songs as life-affirming contemporary jazz. Here he presented four of them in a performance that, like the album, avoided mawkish sentiment. Rather, there was an enthralling mix of philosophical ruminations, love songs and narrative poetry, all wrapped in Elling's highly entertaining ad-libbed repartee.
The short first set began with Jackson Browne's "Doctor My Eyes" and continued with Elling announcing: "We've a little protest movement coming up tonight." The dystopian vision of Bob Dylan's "Everything Is Broken" came next, setting up thoughts on the following day's US presidential election. "You don't know what bravery is until you overcome fear," Elling said at one point. And then came three songs from his Christmas record, an album "so good, you could put it on in spring".
Elling's charm lies in his worldly optimism, and here it infused his take on the festive season. The carol "Some Children See Him", written in 1951, was a celestial celebration of racial equality. In contrast, "Little Drummer Boy", taken as a New Orleans shuffle, lauded the joys of percussion — drummer Ulysses Owens Jr's solo was a showstopper. And Dan Fogelberg's bittersweet "Same Old Lang Syne" was brought thrillingly to life.
When sustained, Elling's pure tones can make the spine tingle, and his range stretches from controlled falsetto to resonant bass. But his greatest strength lies in placing his superb technique and jazz musician's guile at the service of a lyric. The long second set opened with Elling enunciating each syllable of Bob Dylan's "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall" without histrionics, but achieving a power of intent equal to that of the original. "Star of Wonder" was as crisp as a frosty winter's night, while a delve into the Elling back catalogue included "The Waking" and a feature for Clark Sommers on bass. Carla Bley's "Lawns", earmarked for a future project, combined melodic simplicity with instrumental finesse.
The finale was a rocking rumination on nightlife temptation. "Late Night Willie" featured stinging John McLean guitar, psychedelic organ from Stu Mindeman and powerhouse drums. Elling's superb vocalese brought the evening to a high and set up the encore, a poignant arrangement of a James Joyce poem.
Four stars: â˜… â˜… â˜… â˜… â˜†