Kurt Elling at the Sydney Opera House

Although the touchstone for Kurt Elling’s one-off Sydney concert was the landmark album John Coltrane and vocalist Johnny Hartman made in one afternoon in March 1963, the Chicago-born singer made sure it was much more than a warm and fuzzy sentimental tribute.
Each song from the Impulse classic that Elling tackled was lovingly rendered, as they are on his Grammy award-winning album Devoted To You. But the colours and extraordinary range of his voice made them his own and, truth be told, more interesting than Hartman’s smooth Nat King Cole-like delivery.

LA tenor saxophonist Bill Sheppard – a favourite sideman of Chick Corea – re-created the magic of Coltrane, albeit it the master in a mellower and more contained mood than on his great masterpiece A Love Supreme, released the following year.

Elling’s voice encompasses a range and scope few have even come near. His baritone lower register has all the gorgeous phrasing of Sinatra and, four octaves above, his falsetto – used to great effect on the opener Moonlight Serenade – recalls the tenderness of Chet Baker.

Few singers today can put over a ballad as well, and fewer still can scat with such Tourette-like wit and rapidity or vocalise over a Dexter Gordon solo with so much erudition and style.

But none of this would be even half as good were it not for his pianist and arranger, Laurence Hobgood, described by Dave Brubeck as “one of the most incredible pianists I’ve ever heard”.

Taking a skittering solo in the Rogers and Hart classic You Are Too Beautiful, he managed to work in Happy Birthday – it was Elling’s 43rd – without it sounding corny.

In his pinstripe gangster suit with open collar batik shirt, Elling exudes that same compact energy as Jimmy Cagney, only a lot gentler.

Duelling off his drummer Ulysses Owens Jr on Steppin’ Out, or rearranging bassist Harish Raghavan’s chord sheets for the next number, Elling runs the show and keeps a weather eye on his immaculate sidemen and on his wrist watch as well.

If we take his word that Sydney is like a second home, it shouldn’t be too long before we’ll be treated to his exceptional talents again.