Kurt Elling: Vocal dexterity & mental agility

Within 10 seconds of Kurt Elling's arrival on Ronnie Scott's stage, negligently yet somehow expensively elegant, one knew the only thing to do was to yield. Seduction is all about mastery, after all, and is there any more masterful singer on the planet right now? At one point he picked up a microphone in mid-phrase, moved it six inches to the right, then moved it back again. It was completely fascinating, in the way watching an old-school star like Paul Newman close a car door is fascinating.
The mastery went way beyond charisma. Listening to Elling is a masterclass on how to make voice, words, melody and microphone work together to fix an atmosphere. The voice itself is astonishing. You'd think it would be too grainy and freighted with 4.00am melancholy to have any flexibility. But how Elling made it soar up at the end of I like the Sunrise, holding a high trumpet-like note for what seemed an eternity. The way he brings out the emotional charge in words is surprising, but amazingly effective. Instead of clarifying the words he blurs them, throwing the weight onto the curdling intensity of the voice.

You have to lean forward to catch the words, but that's part of the effect. And at the other end of the scale, the sheer speed of his scatting in I'm Satisfied was mesmerising, drummer Kendrick Scott responding in kind.

Just as impressive as Elling's vocal dexterity was his mental agility. He's a smart well-read guy, and isn't afraid to let us know it. This gig was mostly a selection from his recent album 1619 Broadway, an original and enormously stylish take on the songwriters and producers and arrangers associated with that address, from Burt Bacharach to Carole King. Among them was the amusingly satirical Pleasant Valley Sunday, close in sentiment and verbal wit to Tom Lehrer's Little Boxes, but much more rewarding musically. Elling's musical director and Laurence Hobgood is every bit as smart. His arrangement of Harry Warren's I only Have Eyes for You buried a clear reference to Gershwin's 2nd piano prelude inside its deliciously yearning weave.

Only one thing was missing: spontaneity. But when the results are this seductive, that seemed a small price to pay. And in the high, lonely melody of Carole King's So Far Away, one felt genuine emotion stirring. Art is artifice, after all.