Kurt Elling gave a blockbuster of a performance on Sunday night, thrilling listeners in the packed National Arts Centre Studio with his seemingly inexhaustible, room-filling voice and dramatic songs that swept from one emotional extreme to the other.
Whether rendering bold, hard-swinging numbers or ballads about sublime love or heartache, the extroverted New Yorker filled the intimate venue with vocal virtuosity, star power and good humour.
It was the second show Elling has given in Ottawa in less than a year, as the TD Ottawa International Jazz Festival featured him last December at its annual fundraiser. However, as good as that show was, Sunday night's was superior. It was more tightly focused and bolstered by an extra musician, the ear-catching guitarist John McLean, who beefed up Elling's group.
The show began with Elling accompanied only by his most essential collaborator, pianist Laurence Hobgood, who had also masterfully crafted the arrangements of the familiar material to maximize the impact of Elling's powers. The singer and his right-hand man opened the show by drawing listeners in with a romantic, luxurious version of Hoagy Carmichael's ballad Stardust.
Next came the first of several pop tunes repurposed for exuberant jazz expression. Elling and his rhythm section spun through a viscerally grooving version of Joe Jackson's Steppin' Out. Hobgood, bassist Eric Privert and drummer Pete Van Nostrom laid down some magic-carpet swing while Elling effusively scat-sang, and Hobgood changed the vibe in the room with a composerly improvisation.
Elling, definitely a believer in never-a-dull-moment programming, sequenced highlight after highlight. A special standout was his elongated, triumphant version of Norwegian Wood, with guitarist John McLean adding a hard-rocking solo.
McLean shone whenever he was featured, but especially on another Carmichael ballad, Skylark. The guitarist's unaccompanied introduction shimmered with beauty and his simpatico with Elling as they took the song out held the audience rapt. An encore was demanded and given. Elling and Hobgood returned to perform the gorgeous, stately ballad Luiza.by the great Brazilian composer Tom Jobim Before rendering the song in its original Portuguese, Elling translated a bit of it to convey the pure passion of Jobim's lyrics.