“Dedicated to You” at the London Jazz Festival

During one of the evening’s many spoken interludes, Kurt Elling, lyrics in hand, speaks in awe of an album recorded in one take – without rehearsal. An album, a precious gem in the repertoire of John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman, that Elling is interpreting in concert form along with co-producer, arranger and pianist Laurence Hobgood.
It works, for the performance is as flawless as the original collaboration was. Elling brings 1963 New Jersey to the Queen Elizabeth Hall via the ‘Solid strings’ quartet, Ulysses Owens Jr on drums, Clark Sommers on bass and Bennie Maupin; whose own alliances only need recalling by first name, ‘McCoy, Herbie and Miles.’

The set is very much faithful to Coltrane’s recording but all is not commonplace in the standards that Elling so adores. Hobgood’s string arrangements are peppered with Bernard Hermann Hitchcock-era vibrato and pizzicato motifs while the percussion during, ‘You Don’t Know What Love Is,’ uses Latin phrasing. ‘Nancy (With the Laughing Face),’ ‘They Say It’s Wonderful,’ and ‘Lush Life’ with its hip lyrics, “To get the feel of life…from jazz and cocktails,” go down a treat.

The arrangements are also fittingly autumnal, although Elling’s conquering vocals provide glistening decorations that hark more to the forthcoming festive season. His voice wields effortless vigor, a reverberating tornado that reels in and spins the audience delirious. Barely taking one deep breath, he pours out a lifetime’s worth of emotion.

Haunting yet equally comforting, the baritone voice ought to be patented as a new instrument. He competes with Maupin’s dulcet sax, soloing and scatting in unison, leaning on piano, hands in pockets, slick and confident, personifying the audacity of the project.

The ensemble succeeds even when Elling is an admiring onlooker from the shadows. Owens Jr produces brush and rattlesnake qualities from his gentle sticks as part of an interchange with the quartet while crashing crescendos combined with Hobgood’s falling chords provide perfect fodder for the string’s prominence on ‘Bessie’s Blues.’ Elling is back with the pianist for the encore, Nat ‘King’ Cole’s, ‘I keep going back to Joe’s.’

With verbal references to Mark Murphy, Frank Sinatra and of course, Barack Obama, the night of musical treasures is steeped in the riches of American luminaries, Kurt Elling included.