Elling beyond extraordinary

Describing the American jazz singer Kurt Elling as extraordinary or even truly extraordinary would be a serious understatement.
A cynical mind might dismiss the New York Times’ recent description of Elling as “the standout male vocalist of our time” as yet another hefty dollop of American hyperbole but I’ll wager that the cynic in question has never experienced the Kurt Elling Quintet in live performance. Christchurch had this opportunity last Saturday when the Chicago-born signer and his band of musical brothers (Stu Mindeman, piano and organ; John McLean, guitar, Clark Sommers, bass; Christian Euman, drums) gave a one-night performance as part of the 2018 Christchurch International Jazz and Blues Festival. This was the moment when all the superlatives and accolades made sense. We were indeed listening to one of the world’s great jazz artists.

Elling has a rich four-octave baritone with a flawlessly expressive flexibility. As a young singer, he studied classical vocal music, performing oratorios with choirs and ensembles. Today he channels Sinatra and bebop with a dash of rhythm and blues, and his own poetic sensibility. His Christchurch concert opened with a taste of unexpected drama when unaccompanied, he began singing Bob Dylan’s A Hard Rain. Slowly the other members of the group joined him, enclosing Dylan’s lyrics in an evolving web of tempos and textures. Above all this, Elling’s voice soared and plunged, swooping across the stage in series of apparently effortless improvisations. It was mesmerising, magic, and emotional.

The rest of the evening reflected the personality of the singer a critic once described as daring, dynamic and interesting. The choice of music was certainly interesting, ranging from Leonard Bernstein’s Lonely Town to an exhilarating re-invention of Hoagy Carmichael’s Skylark. Elling also demonstrated a sharp taste in the classic jazz standards, injecting a contemporary nuance into everything he sang.

The music’s sheer quality was on show in solos by other members of the ensemble, especially Stu Mindeman’s on organ and piano, and Christian Euman’s virtuoso drumming, performances which enthused the already enthusiastic audience in The Piano.

This was unquestionably a night in the company of jazz royalty.