"I LOVE playing with big orchestras and big bands," Kurt Elling says.
It doesn't get much bigger than the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. So earlier today, in rehearsals ahead of weekend concerts at Hamer Hall, the legendary US jazz vocalist cut loose.
One moment, Elling's distinctive baritone was gliding on silky strings. The next, he was carving crescents in the air with his hands and jiving alongside members of his hard-swinging quartet.
"Singing loud, man ... I love that," he says. "There's a time for dissonance, a time for excitement. But, you know, the charts for this concert (with MSO) are significantly more subtle which I think is a positive thing. That way you get as much of a beauty spin as you can have."
At once velvety and virile, Elling's voice is a thing of beauty. He has a four-octave range and in Melbourne, fans can expect to hear him sing favourites (I Like The Sunrise), cuts from his latest album (Passion World) and even a bit of Sinatra (Come Fly With Me).
"We've got several tasks which I hope will play seamlessly," he says.
Elling's right-hand man is maestro Ben Northey, who calls the American visitor "a unique artist."
"This orchestra (the MSO) gets to work with some really amazing solo artists in the classical genre and it's wonderful to have someone come through from a different genre who is the equal of those people," Northey says.
"Kurt treats his voice as an instrument and reacts to all the different things that he hears. When the arrangements are coloured by brass, he sings in a certain tone.
Then, when he's working with woodwinds and strings, it's different again. You can hear him blending and adjusting because he has such an extraordinary capability to do that.
"To hear this man at the absolute top of his game is quite spine-tingling."
Elling returns the compliment: "Ben's a great guy, a great musician. He knows how to keep the orchestra going, how to 'protect' the singer and he understands what my guys (in the band) are there to do. It's just a beautiful collaboration."
The Melbourne International Jazz Festival is on until June 7.
Kurt Elling will perform with the MSO at Hamer Hall, Arts Centre Melbourne, on Saturday (May 30) at 7pm and Sunday (May 31) at 2pm. Bookings: melbournejazz.com or 9929 9600.