Concert Review: Kurt Elling @ Barbican, London

Kurt Elling is that rare jazz singer who really suits a venue like the Barbican: at Ronnie Scott’s, where he played a residency last July, he seemed to be playing to a non-existent gallery. Despite his groundbreaking contributions to the vocalist’s art, Elling is an old-school showman, with razor-sharp outfits, poise, and patter slick to the point of corniness. Like the man himself, this concert had big ambitions, much more than a promotional date for new album The Gate (as in “swings like a…”). The first quartet set included guest spots from accordion master Richard Galliano and guitarist John McLean, while in the second set Elling was accompanied by the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra.
Elling’s multiple octaves and breakneck scat are so staggering that they can get in the way of emotional sincerity, and the first couple of tunes seemed geared towards impressing the audience rather than really connecting with us. Joe Jackson’s Steppin’ Out made a rousing opener, with sizzling drum work from Ulysses Owens Jr; it was followed by Dedicated To You, which gave its name to his 2010 Grammy-winning John Coltrane/Johnny Hartman tribute album and was one of its standout tracks. Here, though, it was smothered under the technical fireworks – though there was a magic moment when the high note ending Elling’s solo dissolved into the first note of Laurence Hobgood’s, perfectly illustrating the bond between the vocalist and his long-standing pianist/arranger.

Samurai Cowboy, a highlight of The Gate with its bizarre beatnik lyric, began with a “drum-off” between Owens on skins and Elling on vocal percussion. The tune was lifted to sublime heights by John McLean’s guitar solo, warm sheets of sound recalling country music and West African jazz. McLean’s tasteful playing is an inspired counterweight to Elling’s sometimes severe, hard sound, and he made lovely contributions to the King Crimson cover Matte Kudasai – here played with a more waltz-like feel than on The Gate.

Richard Galliano joined for the remainder of the set, beginning with In Summer (Estate), which made full use of the accordion’s romantic associations and inspired a sensitive vocal. Nighttown, Lady Bright featured an extract from Duke Ellington’s Music Is My Mistress, beautifully read by Elling (who could make a career in voiceover if, improbably, the singing work ever dries up). The best was saved for last, in Elling’s vocalese setting of Coltrane’s Resolution. Following a guest spot by Tommy Smith of the SNJO, Galliano delivered several virtuoso choruses before taking flight into something miraculous. Accordion shredding over a vocal version of a spiritual saxophone suite: not anyone’s idea of an obvious recipe, but a thing of wonder.

The SNJO set began with Elling’s signature tune Nature Boy, its 007-style drama ramped up by the presence of the horns. It was fun – almost a guilty pleasure – to hear him crooning some straightahead swing on I Can’t Give You Anything But Love, but the arrangements that showed the SNJO to their best advantage were the classic, orchestral ballads More Than You Know and the encore My Foolish Heart. The more modern repertoire, such as a funked-up April In Paris, felt a little stodgy. As such a self-possessed, controlled performer, Elling benefits from the suppleness and unpredictability of an improvising small group, and the best moments in the second set came from Elling’s interplay with soloists: with Galliano on April In Paris, and Tommy Smith on Golden Lady – which even saw Elling bring out a tambourine. Make no mistake, he was having fun, and so were we.