Kurt Elling, the great American jazz singer, was a divinity student with a church-musician father – experiences that fuelled in him a philosophical intelligence and mistrust of dogma, alongside an affection for communal celebrations that are often glimpsed in his work. Those qualities have never seemed so unexpectedly evident as on his new jazz-spun Christmas album, The Beautiful Day.
On Tuesday night, while his homeland was confronting the world with a fearful need for all the philosophical creativity it can get (another jazz giant, the US saxophonist Joshua Redman, simply tweeted the word "dread" in the small hours), the singer was cruising through a briefly consoling celebration of inclusiveness, curiosity and warmth.
The Beautiful Day includes jazz remakes of Little Drummer Boy, We Three Kings and jazz composer John Hollenbeck’s The Snow Is Deep on the Ground. Challengingly early in the show, Elling confirmed his shmaltz-resistance with a distinctly un-dinner jazzy lyric about facing death (stretched over a springy Latin groove), and a brief swerve into Moonlight Serenade resolved on a tantalisingly held high note followed by a reverberating low one that brought a gasp or two around the room. The 1950s anti-racist carol Some Children See Him attested to the singer's power at low volumes, he turned Little Drummer Boy into a bebop-scat tour de force with percussionist Ulysses Owens, and fine guitarist John McLean coaxed a teasing blues break out of Same Old Lang Syne.
This was a high-risk venture, considering jazz culture’s reputation for unsentimentality, but Elling walked that tightrope with remarkable aplomb.
Four stars: â˜… â˜… â˜… â˜… â˜†