Kurt Elling in London: One of the most exciting stage presences in jazz
Sheila Jordan is one of the most creative interpreters of a lyric in jazz. She's now 83 but her performance at the Queen Elizabeth Hall belied her years – she was totally on song, beginning and ending her set with a blues. The opening Hum Drum Blues was from her classic 1962 Blue Note album Portrait Of Sheila, one of the most memorable of all jazz vocal recordings. Then followed Wouldn't It Be Loverly, a Latin version of All Or Nothing At All, and Jimmy Webb's The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress. The estimable Brian Kellock is her regular pianist on UK visits, and Sheila was rightly lavish in her praise – “I love this cat,” she affirmed. Bassist Kenny Ellis and drummer Stu Richie completed the trio. After their instrumental version of Falling In Love With Love, the singer returned for Dat Dere with Oscar Brown's lyrics that she made her own, Sonny Rollins's Pent Up House – with hilarious lyrics she wrote herself – and a blues. The encore featured a moving version of Benny Goodman's torch song theme, Goodbye.
Sheila Jordan's performance, entrancing though it was, was no preparation for the emotional tsunami that followed. The thunderous reception for Kurt Elling – his fan-club were there, and duly went wild – was followed by the act to end all acts. While Ms Jordan benefits from an intimate club venue, Elling's act is big enough to fill a stadium. With what seemed at first like a rictus grin, and hand gestures mannered enough that it was a relief when he finally lifted the mic off the stand, there was a touch of David Lynch, or Jack Nicholson's Joker, about the event.
It was the most incredible and exciting stage performance nonetheless. His superb American rhythm section – John McLean (guitar), Laurence Hobgood (piano), Clark Sommers (bass), Bryan Carter (drums) – was full on, Elling helping them out redundantly on tambourine. He several times praised Sheila Jordan – “She was there when the table was set,” referring to her Charlie Parker lineage – and both singers in different ways are genuine interpreters of the lyric. Both fully understand the requirements of the microphone and handle it expertly. But in Elling's case, the vocal resonance and stage mannerisms sometimes smothered meaning and sense, while the mixing desk often had him too loud.
But what resonance, and what mannerisms! They proved contagious for guitarist John McLean – who seemed to develop a rare case of spontaneous rickets during one impassioned, knock-kneed solo. The set's theme came from Elling's new album 1619 Broadway – The Brill Building Project, and featured The Drifters' On Broadway, and a delightful unplugged version of Ray Charles's R&B hit Lonely Avenue, with bass accompaniment and the band on backing vocals. That took the temperature down, before Burt Bacharach's wonderful A House Is Not A Home, which got the intensely moving jazz interpretation it had been waiting for. Elling explained a romantic debt to the 1959 cover of Harry Warren and Al Dubin's I Only Have Eyes For You, by doo-woppers The Flamingos – here the guitar fuzz was a slight irritation in an otherwise brilliant updating. The set concluded with an incandescent Nature Boy in which Elling outdid his earlier frenetic scatting, and the guitarist redeemed himself with a smoother, jazz guitar-sounding solo. I contrived to leave without realising there would be an encore – Elling and Jordan duetting on Moody's Mood and Lester Leaps In – but incredibly, that still made nearly three hours of music.
Elling's set was jazz on steroids, with a massive power – often over-amplified, with over-the-top use of looping and echo electronics by the singer. Elling has a huge voice, in that way perhaps paralleling Scott Walker. Elling's banter over the musical intros was witty enough, but also clichéd in a way that added to a surreal quality, a sense of the grotesquely larger-than-life. At times there was something a little creepy or macabre about the proceedings – hints of David Lynch, in that safe and ordinary things were made uncanny. This is not something I've ever noticed on Elling's recordings, and it might be that his music is better heard on disc – but then that would mean missing what is, despite my reservations, one of the most exciting stage presences in jazz.