Kurt Elling in Dublin: An orchestra and all that jazz

Kurt Elling plays the National Concert Hall, in Dublin, this evening, after a gruelling tour of Norway, Denmark and the Netherlands.
Last week, the jazz singer was battling a chest infection. “I was built to sing, physiologically, but the fatigue hasn't helped the challenge of fighting this virus,” he says. “I'll cope.”

The Dublin show will be special — he performs with his band, and with the RTÉ Concert Orchestra. “I wasn't going to have my band with me for the Dublin concert, just my collaborator, Laurence Hobgood [pianist], but John McLean [guitarist] was coming home on a 'father and son' visit to Ireland, so I invited him to join us. Then, the bass player, Clark Sommers, said he'd like to come, too.”

Two visits to the Cork Jazz Festival, in 2006 and 2009, enraptured Irish audiences, who appreciate Elling's vocal gymnastics with their soft, sensitive landings. Dublin will be Elling's first visit to Ireland with a full orchestra, led by Brian Byrne.

“You never quite know what to expect with an orchestra, but I am often astonished at their calibre, stylistically. It's not easy for an orchestra to be flexible, but I really have been knocked out by them,” Elling says.

Elling's schedule doesn't leave much time for writing. “I'm just back from a 10-day break, which was longer than I've had for a while.” He can write on the hoof, but doesn't like it. “I'm trying to get off the treadmill of write, record, tour, write, record, tour, trying to get to a place where, like a rotisserie, people would come to me.” Recordings would have financed that, but sales are not what they used to be.

Elling is philosophical: “I have a rich man's problems. I'm not in Syria. I can't say I have problems.”

Elling takes risks on stage with unrehearsed scats and doesn't worry they won't work. It's about keeping fresh and excited and pushing boundaries musically, but with a philosophy of creativity and a deep intellectual awareness. Not formally trained, Elling has no constraints, and his music can be appreciated as a beautiful melody, but, at another level, with his quirky interpretations, its subtle jokes can be enjoyed.

His latest album, 1619 Broadway — The Brill Building Project, includes interpretations of pop songs by composers such as Paul Simon ('The American Tune') and Carole King, whose 'So Far Away' captured hearts at live concerts.

The album touched those separated, as Elling often is, from their families.

The Brill Building, in New York, where Elling has lived since 2008, was key to the development of the careers of songwriters such as Gerry Goffin and King, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weill, Burt Bacharach and Hal David, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. Duke Ellington worked in a rented space there, along with Nat 'King' Cole.

In Dublin, Elling is likely to perform Ellington's 'Tutti For Cootie', written to showcase his trumpeter, Cootie Williams' talents.

Whatever happens in NCH on Tuesday, music lovers will hear Elling's inimitable style, exciting rhythms and harmonies, and his flattering stamp of approval of tunes we know, and might have forgotten for a while. Velvet personified.