One of the world's leading jazz vocalists breezed into Dundee last night with one thought on his mind; making great music with one of the world's finest jazz orchestras. Last night in the capacious chamber of the city's Caird Hall he did just that, and the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra proved once more that their partnerships with Kurt Elling always produces something extraordinary.
I don't need to make a case for the SNJO. They are widely recognized for twenty years of sterling service to the cause of contemporary orchestral jazz. I certainly don't need to make a case for the Grammy award-winning Kurt Elling, whose approach to jazz is consistently eclectic, selective, creative and imaginative.
In this particular celebration of Frank Sinatra's centenary, they are a match made in jazz heaven for those of us who want to get close to the way Sinatra really made audiences feel. Some in the crowd had seen The Voice in Glasgow at the end of his career and way past his September years. They of course treasure that memory, but few will have seen Sinatra in the flesh at, or near, the peak of his considerable powers. The SNJO and Elling go beyond tribute by breathing emphatic life into the original charts with fresh new arrangements, tight playing and superbly inventive singing.
Elling is far too wise to imitate or emulate Sinatra's mannerisms, and it's hardly necessary for he is such a strong vocal personality in his own right. He's also a witty, droll and sharp entertainer with the instincts of a natural storyteller. Similarly, when SNJO soloists like Tommy Smith, Lorne Cowieson, Brian Kellock, Konrad Wiszniewski, Chris Grieve and Martin Kershaw step into the light, they are keen to remind us that these shows aren't just mere nostalgia.
Yet, the SNJO nail that sound so marvellously well that it seems at times much more than just a re-creation of the Basie-informed, power-packed big band experience. They also seem capable of transporting listeners to a time and place by sheer force of will, and dedicated service to the music. I could see many in the audience not simply encouraged to reminisce, but utterly seduced into feeling young again.
It's a platform that serves Kurt Elling tremendously well, and he wastes no time pumping up his considerable volume, and more than matching expectations. The challenge obviously is to banish comparison by remaining true to both the songs and oneself. Elling disarms with charm, and incredibly inventive singing. He therefore preserves his strong identity while staying in touch with the melodic strands established in Sinatra's original recordings and live performances.
If you want to hear your favourite Sinatra songs sung with passion, reverence, love, respect and individuality then look no further than Kurt Elling. He did that for me with his stunning interpretations of Moonlight in Vermont and In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning. If you like jazz that makes you feel like a sophisticated person about town who knows a thing or two about music, then catch these SNJO shows. Any band that can unveil Sinatra in two versions of the same song can only educate you further. I Only Have Eyes For You is one of those perennial tunes that can stand a little re-invention, and in two very different arrangements they delivered just that.
Right now, I only have ears for Kurt Elling and the SNJO with so many great things yet to come. Elling’s new CD Passion World, a collection of songs from around the globe, is already causing a stir, and it features the SNJO on a very moving interpretation of The Loch Tay Boat Song. The Scottish National Jazz Orchestra take to the boats themselves in June as they tour the Highlands and Islands with special guest Eddi Reader, celebrating their twentieth anniversary among their ain folk.
I'd also like to mention that the concessions for young people at SNJO shows are astonishing. That means there's little excuse for missing them, and missing out on one of Scotland's finest and most generous musical offerings.