Kurt Elling Swings Sinatra with the SNJO: a performance of evocative style and musical passion

In April 2002, I was fortunate to attend the annual Tartan Week in New York celebrating Scottish heritage and culture and our contribution to the United States. In downtown Chelsea, the Distilled contemporary music festival included Mull Historical Society and the talented young Jazz Saxophonist Tommy Smith, who wowed the crowd of young Manhattanites.
As a teenager, Smith left Edinburgh to take up a scholarship at Berklee College, Boston and it seems that American music has been the heart and soul of his work ever since.

Twenty years ago, he founded the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra in order to promote the world of jazz, inspire young musicians, performing and recording afresh the works of Ellington, Gershwin, Gillespie, Goodman, Monk and Miles et al.

The “Kurt Elling Swings Sinatra” concert tour over the past week brought the SNJO together again with American guest star Kurt Elling as a centenary tribute to the voice, the music, the man, the legend.

Sinatra was born in Hoboken, New Jersey on December 12, 1915, the only child of Italian immigrants. As a young boy, he would sit at the waterfront staring across the Hudson, just a ferry boat ride to a different world – Manhattan.

He began singing in local nightclub gigs before work at WNEW Radio, New York City with bandleader Harry James for $75 per week, the start of his 50 year show business career. Sinatra's charismatic appeal may be explained in his own words: “When I sing, I believe. I'm honest.”

On Saturday night, the Usher Hall there was a near capacity audience (an age range across the generations from around 21 to 81) to hear those enduring Sinatra songs set to the melodic sound of an American Big Band.

Chicago-born Kurt Elling is regarded as among the world's most accomplished Jazz singers. “Since the mid-1990s, no singer has been as daring, dynamic or interesting….He has come to embody the creative spirit in jazz.” –The Washington Post

He is immaculately dressed in a double breasted grey suit, with orange silk lining, (Sinatra's favourite colour) and with the SNJO Big Band in formal black tie, there's an evocative, nostalgic sense of 1950s debonair style.

Elling is also an excellent narrator, telling stories about Sinatra's life, career and background to the songs; 1,400 recordings, Grammy awards galore and, bizarrely he adds, Frank has 5 million Facebook Friends!

We are treated to a broad repertoire – I Only have Eyes for You, The Good Life, I've Got You under my Skin, In the Still of the Night, Luck Be a Lady, My Kind of Town…and many more familiar ballads.

But this is not a performance which aims to parody or imitate Sinatra. Elling's rich baritone vocal range spans four octaves with such masterly control of lyrical phrasing; at times it seems he does not take a breath throughout a complete verse.

He is accompanied by the exciting, exuberant musicianship of the SNJO which leads the underlying rhythm and tone, from gentle, romantic mood to raunchy, foot-tapping swing. Tommy Smith as well key members of the orchestra perform stunning solos, improvising and enhancing the original harmonies with cool and colourful jazz-blues beat.

Kurt Elling and the SNJO well deserved the enthusiastic applause and a standing ovation for this sassy, sophisticated show: a magical, passionate celebration of such an iconic songbook and timeless music.