Kurt Elling, Cadogan Hall, London — a superlative singer

A stunning performance from the jazz vocalist and his ensemble
The first lines of Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” opened Kurt Elling’s superlative concert; unaccompanied, they rekindled the focused fury of Bob Dylan’s dystopic vision with clear diction, impeccable timing and a controlled sense of rage.

Mournful, minor-key piano joined first, then, on the chorus, the band in full. Solos followed, each burning hot, until the piece closed with Elling’s four-octave baritone voice hovering over a ripple of piano and a thunderous showcase for drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts.

With the first number playing like a finale, how to top that? Yet the American singer did, with love songs, social commentaries and tongue-in-cheek lyrics, in a stunning ensemble performance that commanded the hall from first to last.

The body of the evening was built on Elling’s recent CD, The Questions. He had a few more questions tonight on the state of the world: “How the hell did we get here?” “How long do we have to stay?” Not too long, perhaps, according to the upbeat “A Happy Thought”, a poetic whimsy on the idea that death is nothing to fear, Elling’s voice soaring into a “light so bright”.

Other questions were perhaps more pressing: “Where do I get a steak in this town just by my good looks?” Probably not in Leonard Bernstein’s “Lonely Town”, here rendered tenderly towards the end of the set with hints of New Orleans boogie and a hip-hop fade.

The performance moved from the longing of Oscar Hammerstein’s “I Have Dreamed” and the anguish of Peter Gabriel’s “Washing of the Water” to Elling’s hallucinatory lyrics set to Carla Bley’s “Lawns” and the poetic narrative of his own “A Secret in Three Views”.

Each mood was distinct and fully fleshed out. Guitarist John McLean delivered dense voicings, jazz-steeped lines and hints of country and the blues. Bassist Clark Summers wove counterpoint into Watts’s sensitive polyrhythmic rumble. And on piano and organ Stu Mindeman roamed from delicate impressionism to gospel jazz.

The finale, “As Long As You’re Living”, was a twisty jazz-blues in 5/4 that Watts drew to a peak and the encore a sumptuous reading of Hoagy Carmichael’s “Skylark”. Elling returned a second time, alone, to improvise imperiously on the standard “I Can’t Get Started”. Elling’s performances always set a high bar, but tonight’s raised it to another level.

Five stars: * * * * *