Kurt Elling & Sheila Jordan: Two Truly Great Singers
Two singers perfectly at home on stage: one invites you to join her as if it's her living room; the other reaches out with vocal power.
Sheila Jordan (about to turn 84) and Kurt Elling (about 40 years younger) sang a set each, ending the evening by duetting on Moody's Mood and Lester Leaps In. Both vocalists write lyrics to jazz tunes and instrumental solos. Both invent lyrics spontaneously as they scat. They riffed together with words and notes, hilarity and musical brilliance, on themes of love, clothes and the secret life of the bass player!
Sheila Jordan's set had been the first, billed as support, but she's a legend in her own right; she charmed the audience with her naturalness and amazing vocal elasticity. Several songs were from her 1962 Blue Note debut A Portrait of Sheila. Dat Dere, sung here for 'all kids', encapsulated the childlike joy and innocence in her own singing. Hum Drum Blues swung ecstatically, thanks to the excellent empathetic Scottish trio led by pianist Brian Kellock (Kenny Ellis, bass; Stu Ritchie, drums). She planted a motherly kiss on Kellock's head to congratulate him on a particularly fine solo.
Jordan loves stories. Her funny lyrics to Rollins' Pent-Up House made sense of the tune's title: a invited friend takes over her house with his extended family. She told her own life story in an improvised blues: in her teens she dedicated her life to singing Charlie Parker's music. Parker encouraged her, praising her 'million dollar ears'. She got the whole room singing bebop phrases in her Workshop Blues. She improvised with whooping sounds from her American Indian background, introducing the exquisite ballad The Moon is a Harsh Mistress – her vibrato brought out the song's melancholy.
Kurt Elling captured the stage with commanding presence, using his whole dramatic vocal range. In Come Fly With Me he hit us with long powerful notes, each note cheered by the audience. In the funky You Send Me (dedicated to Jordan) he moved the microphone from side to side to change the vibrato in his deep tones, responding to John McLean's gutsy, heavy-stringed guitar solo. The shuffly I'm Satisfied had Elling scatting with his whole vocal weight and total commitment, the fast punchy syllables suggesting Jon Hendricks.
In the ballad I Only Have Eyes For You, Elling sang with his mouth almost closed: a lovely muted resonance. In A House is Not a Home, his sudden diminuendo on a high falsetto note enacted the words 'ends in tears' perfectly. You wanted the note to last forever. Musical risks are important to him: he used digital delay on the voice to harmonise with himself, creating textures between Bobby McFerrin's Circle Songs and Arvo Part. He covered the mic with his hand for an effect like overtone chanting.
Those songs were from his new album: 1619 Broadway – The Brill Building Project. In Lonely Avenue (one that 'didn't make it on to the album') he belted the blues like Van Morrison, the band on backing vocals, all with minimal amplification, against the strong bluesy rattle of Clark Sommers' bass solo. (Elling: 'Now that's the real thing!') A rock-crowd cheer acknowledged the opening chords of Nature Boy from the first album. We heard daredevil scat, and an explosive drum solo from Bryan Carter. Elling's long-term arranger and pianist extraordinaire, Laurence Hobgood, saved his best solo till last, a passionate high point.
Earlier in the evening, Elling had defined a great singer: a mix of 'virtuosity and emotional transparency', giving the audience 'opportunities to be unnerved…a sensation of joy…' The audience stood to cheer two truly great singers.