A parade of wonderful jazz singers, backed by a luxuriantly big orchestra, singing two dozen or so of the greatest popular songs ever written. It's a sure-fire recipe for bliss, repeated each year for the opening night of the EFG London Jazz Festival at the Barbican Hall. One could only sit back and enjoy, buoyed along by the cunning, prismatically coloured arrangements of musical director Guy Barker, and the entertaining banter of host Jumoké Fashola, playing the straight woman to her fellow host's Ian Shaw's self-mockingly learned banter.
The trouble with such an evening, if one can call it "trouble", is that everything tends to get flattened into a general impression of finger-snapping pizzazz, glittery gowns, and ecstatically high endings topped with shrieking trumpets (and boy did they shriek. If there were any bats in the Barbican's roof they'll have been seriously disturbed). There was the odd low point, such as the strangely tepid and mannered rendition of Neither One of Us by much-touted Chicago singer Sachal. Emma Smith in Dance me to the End of Love was just fine, as were Natalie Williams' two Beatles numbers. Jacqui Dankworth's rendition of Chaplin's Smile was as weepy as it had to be, that is, a bit too much.
Others were on a different level entirely. Jacob Banks, Birmingham's young blues phenomenon, was hauntingly intense in Giving Up. Suddenly we felt the press of real feeling, amongst all the glitz. Another Brit, Vula Malinga, blasted us with real Motown energy in What's Going On. Soaring over everything were three singers with the kind of star quality that makes everything seem easy. Georgie Fame, loping on stage to a great roar from the audience, treated us to Yeh Yeh, the song that brought him a no 1 spot fifty years ago. The years simply fell away.
If one had to name the evening’s emotional high point, it would be Dee Dee Bridgewater's rendition of Horace Silver's Lonely Woman, done in a beautifully tender, understated way.
If one had to name the singer with the most irresistible star quality, it was surely Kurt Elling. He launched the evening on a high, with a performance of Steppin' Out that was a masterclass in timing, vocal control and cunning use of the microphone.
At the end, when all the singers plus Ian Shaw came together for a Ray Charles medley, it was Elling's effortless stylishness that seized one's eyes and ears.