Melbourne International Jazz Festival review: Kurt Elling and MSO form ‘magnificent organism’

Let's be honest: when jazz is performed in an orchestral setting, the results are often less than satisfying. The orchestra – especially when accompanying a jazz ensemble – is frequently reduced to swelling strings, jaunty interludes and brass-studded climaxes, falling silent whenever the “real” jazz players take their solos.
Happily, Kurt Elling's festival collaboration with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra was a rare example of two worlds coming together to produce something genuinely thrilling. The superb arrangements allowed the MSO (under the direction of Benjamin Northey) and Elling's band to cohere as a single, magnificent organism – fluid, responsive and infinitely malleable.

It was an acoustic setting fit for a king, and Elling has long been considered jazz royalty. The US vocalist has performed here many times, and his technical and creative prowess never fail to inspire awe: the multi-octave range; the extraordinary control of tone, pitch and dynamics; the ability to sprint across wide intervals or spurt out improvised syllables with astonishing precision.

But the emotional resonance of Elling's artistry has deepened over the years, and hearing it magnified by an orchestra was truly heart-swelling stuff. The singer added barely a hint of embellishment to Bonita Cuba or Loch Tay Boat Song, instead focusing on the intense yearning each song contains. He revelled in the samba breeze of Você Já Foi à Bahia, sung as an ebullient duet with Melbourne singer Michelle Nicolle. And on Nature Boy, he coaxed a wistful introduction into an exhilarating display of vocal dexterity, swooping and soaring over the orchestra or locking into crisp unison with his dynamically charged quartet.

Two encores later, he sang a deliciously swaggering I'm Satisfied. The audience shared the sentiment, offering a standing ovation in response. More than satisfying, this was a triumph on every level.

Four & a half stars: * * * * ½