Jazz: Kurt Elling at the Barbican

His voice is an instrument. A singer who has the poise and range of a saxophonist, Kurt Elling may not be a household name, yet he is at the top of the jazz tree right now. A decade and a half ago, when he was just beginning to take on New York, I saw him play a club where the young, well-heeled crowd seemed more interested in talking Wall Street and ordering cocktails than listening to his angular improvisations.
Now he is pulling in full houses at major concert halls, a feat he has achieved without dumbing down or turning his back on his Beat poet instincts. A former theology grad student at Chicago University, he is an intellectual baritone with a dash of Sinatra’s swagger. By the end of this imaginatively programmed evening, which showcased his new album, The Gate, and matched him with the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra as well as his own group and the French accordionist Richard Galliano, he took his bows in front of a standing ovation.

It seems almost churlish, then, to complain that the concert lacked emotional heat, but the risk you always take with an Elling performance is that the calculated technical virtuosity will elbow out simpler virtues. He is an artist who provokes awe but sometimes forgets to pluck at the heartstrings.

The highlights, though, were certain to linger in the memory. On the volcanic Resolution — lifted from John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme — he went toe to toe with Galliano and the tenor sax of Tommy Smith, unfurling a prodigious vocalese solo. The brooding Matte Kudasai formed an intriguing detour into the King Crimson songbook — not exactly the most conventional source material for a jazzer — while the homage to Benny Carter on I Can’t Give You Anything But Love found the SNJO generating a luxuriant backdrop. Earlier, Elling’s scat arsenal even extended to a burst of classical Indian kathak vocalising. He can take sudden leaps through the octaves with all the ease of a Stan Getz.

Still, the attempt to jazzify the Beatles’ Norwegian Wood was rather more ponderous, while Elling’s well-intentioned effort to turn to romantic lyrics of Billie into a meditation on the Japanese earthquake fell some way short. His self-consciously retro demeanour can be irksome too: cool is good, but he might as well take to the stage wrapped in Hugh Hefner’s smoking jacket.