Concert review: Kurt Elling/Richard Galliano, Barbican

The label “heir to Sinatra” is a heavy one for any singer, but Kurt Elling wears it with ease. He strolled on to the stage with his trio, casually elegant, surveyed us all with pleased surprise: “Oh my goshness, look at you all.” Then he launched into Joe Jackson’s ‘Stepping Out’, one of the numbers from his new album The Gate that filled the first half of this concert.
Elling has the kind of commanding personality that makes him interesting to watch, even when he’s just helpfully moving someone’s mike stand. But it’s the voice that’s so riveting. It has a wonderful heavy graininess, coupled with a four-in-the-morning tiredness. It lent tremendous weight to tender sentiments, like the simple line, “She sleeps in a chair” in King Crimson’s ‘Matte Kudasai’.

You’d think such a voice would be too heavy to fly into other emotional regions, but the amazing thing is how flexible it is. Elling can float into stratospheric falsetto one minute, and indulge in comically razor-sharp rhythmic scatting the next — as he did with drummer Ulysses Owens Jr in Elling’s own Samurai Cowboy.

On one level Elling is a perfect recreation of an older type, a kind of male Ute Lemper. At the same time, he’s absolutely his own man, self-aware and intellectually canny. His scatting had a definite flavour of Indian rhythmic vocalisation, something you can’t imagine Old Blue Eyes indulging in. Nor would Sinatra write a comically elaborate stream-of-consciousness lyric meditating on Descarte’s theory of consciousness, as Elling does in that same song. All the material was ingeniously re-imagined.

Elling was surrounded by some stellar talent, which could have held the stage in its own right. His own trio – most notably pianist Laurence Hobgood – were as stylishly relaxed as he was. A stream of guests made superb improvisational sparring partners for Elling, above all French accordionist Richard Galliano.

The Scottish National Jazz Orchestra and its leader Tommy Smith deserved all the praise Elling so graciously lavished on them. He’s a proper old-fashioned star, of a type many of us thought had fled the earth.