Kurt Elling Jazz & Symphony: Ellingant!

Last night’s concert, presented under the auspices of the Sydney Symphony’s Kaleidoscope 2008 season was a lesson in breathtaking virtuosity: from Elling himself, who has a prize, precision instrument; the Lawrence Hobgood Quartet (at it’s nucleus, the trio of LH, piano, Robert Amster, acoustic bass and Kobie Watkins, drums), featuring saxophonist, Julien Wilson; and Ben Northey, conducting the wonderfully versatile SSO.
For the last, its presentation of Astor Piazolla’s impossibly romantic Tangazo was living proof of that versatility and a ‘teaser’ for a range of forthcoming concerts: three, entitled Latin American Nights, featuring the precocious Kristjan Jarvi on the podium and one other, Eight Seasons, featuring Vivaldi’s immutable Four Seasons & Piazolla’s take, Four Seasons of Buenos Aires, in a Tea & Symphony concert (11am, Friday, May 23).

In Robert Murray’s programmatic liner-notes, he describes Elling as ‘undeniably cool’ and ‘indisputably genuine’. Right on. These are two qualities that really come across; the first, in his laidback, self-assured stage presence; the latter, not least, through his impressionistic, sometimes idealistic lyrics. While Elling is probably best-known for ‘the voice’, he ought, arguably, be as lauded as a poet; after the hip, jazz-inspired, freewheeling style of Kerouac, as, again, Murray has rightly observed.

Elling opened his set with his surprising, jet-propelled My Foolish Heart; a standard, refreshed, reinvigorated and reinvented in his hands and well-known, among those in the know, for its esoteric interpolation of text from a 16th-century Christian mystic, St John Of The Cross.* In the man’s own, characteristically articulate words, ‘the music we do often subverts expectations’. Indeed, Ned Washington & Victor Young’s modern classic, famously & sublimely interpreted by Mel Torme, takes a new twist, turn and backflip, turning a mere ‘lovely tune’, known as a slow, heart-rending ballad, into something deeper and higher; love is taken into the spiritual realm, presumably reflecting KE’s ‘deeply held, but lightly worn’ faith; (a whole lot easier to take than the regrettably more familiar, in-your-face evangelism many of us have encountered).

In any case, this number, alone, allowed plenty of space for Hobgood to really stretch his nimble fingers and for Elling to show something of his spellbinding vocal capacities. His pitch is spot on; which sounds like something which should self-evidently pertain to a singer of such repute, but is one of those things which is only truly evident on the all-too-rare occasions when one encounters it; he is perfectly (and literally) attuned and, perhaps, as described above, even more than musically. His range, too, is phenomenal, from a rich baritone to a delicate falsetto, with no faltering, anywhere, across that spectrum. He can throw his voice to the veritable rafters, or pull it back to a breathy rasp that mimics a sax.

By turns, his voice is a vehicle for profoundly lyrical readings; a blasting trumpet; a pure, bell-like, French horn; or a string, on the wing. His is complete mastery of his instrument; at one moment earthy, the next, celestial. Thus, even the most familiar things are taken to new places, new planets.

It was smooth sailing through classic arrangements; not only by Hobgood, but Elling himself, as well as maestros Orbert Davis (who covered all the orchestral parts), Shelly Berg, Quincy Jones and more.

Elling carried authority, authenticity and, at once, almost self-effacing humility, alongside a suppressed, but, I think, well-and-truly discernible, incongruous and irreconcilably brash ‘so there!’ His sole encore In The Wee Small Hours encapsulated the last, daring as it did, to live up the impossible, in Sinatra’s legend, and even surpass it. It was almost as if the elder was there, reluctantly, but genuinely, nodding assent and, perhaps, ascent.

Rarely does one performer and his bandmates (in which I include the collective voice of the SSO) so completely enthrall, with and through every note of performance. It was a privilege to attend.

May I propose a new word, which sums him up? Ellingant!

* Note: The interpolated text in Elling’s current performances of My Foolish Heart is his adaptation of a poem by 8th century mystic Rabi’a of Basra.