Concert review: Kurt Elling Quintet & Richard Galliano with the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra

The pre-eminent jazz singer is a very generous man. An evening spent with him, his longtime musical partner, arranger and pianist Laurence Hopgood, and band would be a thoroughly satisfying one. For this date not only do we get Kurt in that setting for the first half, but also in front of a great big band and its virtuoso soloist leader for the second half. And then there is the special guest, accordion maestro Richard Galliano, who appears in both sets. A plethora indeed.
Elling’s new album, The Gate (out now on Concord) provided the meat in the first half: Joe Jackson’s Stepping Out was the self-selecting opener, Samurai Cowboy provided the vocal showcase, King Crimson’s Matte Kudasai showed Elling’s original choice of material and his ballad subtleties, and Night Town, a Don Grolnick tune enhanced by a reading from Duke Ellington’s autobiography, flagged up his beat generation leanings.

The band – Harish Raghavan was on bass, Ulysses Owen Jr on drums – was able to get a real work-out, and the spotlight fell frequently on its latest addition, guitarist John McLean.

In between, Elling squeezed in Dedicated To You, from his Coltrane/Hartman, Grammy-winning disc of the same name, and Coltrane’s Resolution from his Nightmoves album, with SNJO leader Tommy Smith getting a solo and Galliano dropping jaws all around the hall with lightning runs across the buttons.

The Italian song Estate, made famous by Joao Gilberto, had provided the first showcase for Galliano – as eloquent and deeply soulful a soloist as one could find in jazz, irrespective of instrument.

For round two, swing was the thing, and the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra played hard and tight. Elling must be an exhilarating singer to play behind, and, one suspects, a tough taskmaster in rehearsals. Tommy Smith paid tribute to the singer – they had just done three dates with him in Scotland – saying the band had reached a new level from working with him.

The set was filled with classics: Nature Boy, I Can’t Give You Anything But Love (using, I think Elling said, a Betty Carter arrangement as a starting point), April in Paris, and My Foolish Heart as the post-standing ovation encore. Two classics from a different era and featured on The Gate, the Beatles’ Norwegian Wood and Stevie Wonder’s Golden Lady, felt substantially enhanced by live performance and the addition of the big band arrangements.

In there, too, was a gorgeous Galliano tune, Billie, to which Elling had added words. It was in many ways the quiet highlight of the night.

If Tommy Smith seemed a tad under-used and if Hopgood could have had another solo or two, these were natural casualties of such a talent-packed evening. If only it could have gone on longer… but that would be nothing but greed. And it’s a tribute, once again, to the generosity of the main man that we got to hear as much of everyone else as we did.

Elling was, of course, the shining star at the centre, taking chances (his introduction to I Can’t Give You Anything… a mind-boggling display of note-bending, for example), scatting superbly in exchanges with Galliano and Smith, digging deep into the groove in front of the big band, using his full range of lustrous tones, from low and rich chocolatey to those unexpectedly light, airy, floating high notes.

I think Tommy Smith referred to Kurt Elling as “a great human being” – last night’s audience would agree.