Kurt Elling at Ronnie Scott’s: Dazzling Hipness

In his on-stage banter, the Chicago singer Kurt Elling can sound as if he’s swallowed an instruction manual on the kind of cheery badinage the Fast Show’s jazz critic would have relished. But the affectations only accentuate the impact of his dazzling hipness when he sings. Elling manages the remarkable double whammy of sounding as agile as an improvising instrumentalist (thus satisfying hardcore jazzers who don’t like singers), yet intimately sensuous enough on the Great American Songbook to seduce a mainstream audience.
He began his show with an unaccompanied feint and weave through the Nat King Cole classic Stardust, his long, aching note-bends and plaintive upper-register sounds illuminating those much-travelled lyrics afresh. Elling takes care with words, and is masterly at shifting accents and tone colours to make meanings dulled by decades of repetition spring back to life – sometimes with poignant, scary or downright sinister implications. On Joe Jackson’s Steppin’ Out, he unleashed a tide of whoops, shouts and jabbered sounds over a flawless inbuilt pulse on the opening scat section, swapping phrases with imaginative young UK drummer Troy Miller at the close. The Ella Fitzgerald vehicle Dedicated to You brought a superb solo from regular accompanist Laurence Hobgood, that fine pianist casually working the Cabaret theme-song into a set of variations that grew more impulsively freewheeling with every chorus.

Elling then introduced Chicago guitarist John McLean, whose shapely phrasing and vocalised sound added weight to a funky version of Marc Johnson’s Bass Desires with the singer’s own why-are-we-here lyrics, and intensity to a delectable version of the love song Estate. Stevie Wonder’s Golden Lady was reinvented in 7/4 time, but Elling’s encore – a sax-like unaccompanied improv with no mic – was the tour de force of the night.