Kurt Elling at Ronnie Scott’s: A masterclass in jazz singing

OK, so you've given your copies of Rod's It Had To Be You and Robbie's Swing When You're Winning a few listens (released many, many years ago, the latter is still top of the iTunes jazz albums chart in a gazillion countries). You've memorised the words and now you quite fancy giving “Summertime” a bit of a go. A touch of rubato here, a judicious tweak of the melody line there and, hey, you're singing jazz! Er, not quite.
As shown in last night's masterclass by the inimitable Kurt Elling, 'singing jazz' requires a number of things: the desiderata would include developing your own approach to improvisation; working on your technique, your harmonic understanding and your relationship with the pulse; immersing yourself in the greats of the genre. It requires all of these things and more.

Starting with one of his signature songs, “My Foolish Heart”, Elling showed us the boundless possibilities that exist when the full palette of the bona fide jazz singer is in play. Interpolating the Victor Young/Ned Washington standard with a sung poem (“The Moon Was Once a Moth”) by 8th century Sufi saint, Rabia of Basra, the central part of this triptych ended with a hypnotically repeating phrase (“and again”) that rose ever higher until it evaporated right at the top of Elling's four-octave range, before we returned to the standard's welcoming embrace. It was quite an opener. “Thank you, good night!”, Elling joked.

In one continuous set, we were then treated to several cuts from his latest album 1619 Broadway – The Brill Building Project, a homage both to his adopted New York City and to the midtown Manhattan hit factory. The album features his most eclectic song list to date, so as well as Sam Cooke's crossover hit “You Send Me”, whose smooth-as-marble groove was nicely counterpointed with the grit of John McLean's guitar, we also heard a hyper-romantic take on Bacharach and David's “A House Is Not A Home” – featuring one of many eloquent solos from pianist Laurence Hobgood – and a completely reimagined “On Broadway” which took the song to all kinds of strange harmonic places.

The evening's most out-there song was followed by the most introspective, a beautiful setting of “The Waking” (from Nightmoves) by Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Theodore Roethke. Backed only by the great Clark Sommers on bass, Elling's navigation through the poem's unhurried, circular repetitions had a sold-out Ronnie Scott's spellbound.

There was humour, too, in the introduction to “Samurai Cowboy” (from The Gate), with Elling and drummer Kendrick Scott trading increasingly complex rhythmic/melodic motifs, and in the brilliant vocalese of “Freddie's Yen For Jen” (“She's got a wiggle that would make a clock stop”). Last night we got to hear jazz singing at its virtuosic, life-affirming, risk-taking best.

Five stars: * * * * *