Jazz singers are not in short supply these days, but genuinely great ones are always a rarity to treasure. Kurt Elling is undoubtedly in that category, and the latest phase of his ongoing collaboration with the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra will live long in the memory.
In Synopticon, the singer and Tommy Smith, director of the SNJO, put together a fascinating programme based around a structural framework of great ideas, inspired by a similarly titled work collated by American philosopher Mortimer Adler as an adjunct to a collection of literary and philosophical classics (Smith possesses a copy of the set).
They abstracted a series of these ideas and attached them to a varied selection of music. Thus, the sparkling opener, Thelonious Monk's Green Chimneys, with Elling in fine scatting form, represented Joy, the singer's own Esperanto evoked Language, while Wayne Shorter's Go took on a very different resonance through Elling's lyrics, and justified the Good & Evil categorisation in his account of an experience with a mysterious neighbour.
Charles Mingus's lush Duke Ellington's Sound of Love, which the band feature with Elling on their new American Adventure recording, was assigned to Knowledge/Wisdom, while a fine account of Leonard Bernstein's Somewhere in a new arrangement by American pianist Geoffrey Keezer carried the flag for Love/Beauty.
Best of all, though, was Christian Elsässer's newly commissioned arrangement of Paul Simon's American Tune, also assigned to Knowledge/Wisdom. No solos and no pyrotechnics, just a beautifully judged arrangement that made lovely use of instrumental colour, timbre and building intensity behind Elling's masterly delivery.
The singer has a glorious gift for narrative to augment his formidable technical and expressive qualities, which extended to the rather unlikely encore, a beautiful version of the Loch Tay Boat Song, arranged by Florian Ross, which Elling learned from hearing The Corries sing it. The tendrils of influence are indeed far reaching.
In addition to the group material, Elling also sang a couple of his own songs with just the rhythm trio for accompaniment, including a sizzling take on A New Body and Soul which was both a dazzling display of virtuosity and an impressive feat of memory.
While the singer took centre stage, the SNJO were by no means bit players and produced the impeccable ensemble playing and inventive soloing that is their hallmark.
Five stars: * * * * *