Great performers, like great sportsmen, always seem to have more choices, and more time to make them. And in a team sport like jazz, there is an endless fascination in seeing the directions which performers individually and collectively choose to take.
Like gladiators, they can choose how they will make their very first entrance into the arena. Elling's first approach was to blaze, perhaps responding to a slightly toppy trebley sound balance, and to throw out lively rhythmic digs and challenges to his drummer, the hugely impressive Ulysses Owens Jr. who gave as good as he got on every one. Tommy Smith's first entry on Coltrane's Resolution was scalding in its intensity. By contrast, Richard Galliano entered the fray in Bruno Martino's Estate/In Summer with a delightfully oblique and perfectly weighted counter-melody.
Kurt Elling can exploit a staggering variety in vocal timbre and a massive range. Then there are his stylistic choices - a busy Ella scatting chorus here, a perfectly dispatched Clark Terry "Mumbles" episode there. And there are the musicianly choices of landing true on a note, or labouring a teasingly slow comical slide up to the "M" of "More than we know," which reeled in an audience's laughter and its respect, simultaneously, and in equal quantities.
The big band soloists - poor souls - don't get given those kind of choices. On Benny Carter's arrangement of "I Can't Give you Anything but Love" they were rationed to sixteen bars. Tenor saxophonist Konrad Wiszniewski blasted and burnt happily. Pianist Steve Hamilton made his mark by landing on "out" chords and finding his way back in. Tommy Smith told us that the SNJO had been "elevated" by working with Elling. At the end of their tour they were indeed in fine fettle. A one-off appearance by guest Michael Janisch on bass was particularly sweet and delightfully low.
In introducing Galliano's "Billie", Elling alluded to more serious choices faced by the artist. It is not surprising that a mind as alert, complex and razor-sharp as Elling's is not content just describe and evoke romantic love or beauty, when surrounded by natural catastrophes, by "things that are so much bigger than we are." This number, foreshadowed by these thoughts, was perhaps the highlight of the gig. "Billie," musically, is a kind of Gallicized deconstructed "Lullaby of Birdland." But it had real poignancy and depth tonight.
The near-capacity Barbican crowd cheered the performers to the echo. One tweeter informed the world tonight that Elling had sung the encore "My Foolish Heart" just for her. I won't trample on that dream, but the rest of us enjoyed this imaginative piece of programming and some wholely satisfying performances too.