Review: Edinburgh Jazz Festival, Kurt Elling, Assembly Hall, Edinburgh

I hope I am a focused listener, but on Sunday evening I did find myself between a chatty child and a bloke who found it impossible to have a thought without voicing it immediately to his friend. It is testament to the skill of vocalist Kurt Elling that his performance silenced both of them.
Many in the audience may have known Elling chiefly for his work with Tommy Smith and the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra, but this was a taste of what might be identified as his core practice, and “distinctive and original” barely covers it. Elling is a remarkable improvising musician, and has around him a fine band with pianist Stu Mindeman (particularly when using the Hammond sounds on his Nord keyboard) and guitarist John McLean adding beautifully structured solos of their own as well as finely crafted arrangements.

What the singer is exploring is the territory where jazz performance and art song overlap, and he has few peers in that. This is chamber music as much as it is jazz, with I Have Dreamed from the King and I arguably the only work on the set-list that could attract the label “standard”, not excepting the opening radical take on Dylan’s A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.

It also opens his new album, The Questions, which this recital was all about, and which features guest contributions from drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts, saxophonist Branford Marsalis, as well as trumpeter Marquis Hill, who joined the band for the second set here. Two of the evening’s highlights were Jaco Pastorius’s Three Views of a Secret and Carla Bley’s Lawns, to both of which Elling has added lyrics that draw on existing poetry to produce work that is both lyrical and thought-provoking.

There are some drawbacks to this room as a jazz venue, but Elling and his crew overcame those as well. And following the weekend’s protests against his President, he was particularly well disposed towards his Scottish fans: “You’ve all been on the national news for giving him the finger, and I’m so proud of you.”

Four stars: * * * *