Review: Jazz stars in top form on Live in New York

American singer Kurt Elling doesn’t listen to his own albums, so he may not be aware of how voluble he is in this impressive performance at New York’s Birdland jazz club. His whimsical patter, laced with irony, however, is instructive. Live in New York is an affectionate celebration of “those who have come before, who have made what we do possible,” to quote his exact words. The repertoire includes Goin’ to Chicago (for Jon Hendricks), the hilarious evergreen Benny’s From Heaven (for Eddie Jefferson), a sensational version of Save Your Love for Me (for Nancy Wilson) and, in many ways the highlight of the album, a double-barrelled tribute to Billy Eckstine with I was Telling Her About You and A Cottage for Sale.

Note that all these celebrated figures are African American. In 1998 Adrian Jackson had the perspicacity to book an unknown Elling for the Wangaratta Jazz Festival. Even then it was obvious that the singer was headed for great things. Good-looking and more hip than his predecessor, Mark Murphy, he already had the essential armoury of an outstanding jazz singer: the ability to swing, an elegant voice, a convincing scat singing style, stage presence, and he could sing a ballad. The pairing here with Australian trumpeter James Morrison works well because, in his playing, Morrison also essentially looks back — as far as Louis Armstrong, I detect, in his liking for a melodic vibrato and for shaking his long notes, as well as for the technical excitement of Dizzy Gillespie. Morrison and Elling are kindred spirits in their respect for the jazz tradition, which explains the empathy between them, and also their appeal to the wider audience.

The excellent backing group includes the ubiquitous Perth saxophonist Troy Roberts, and the Americans Stu Mindeman (piano), Clark Sommers (bass) and Ulysses Owens Jr (drums). Live in New York has the immediacy of live performance, and Morrison’s well-known predilection to go for a little extra, to squeeze out some higher notes at the top of his range, is a boon for Elling. When he comes in after Morrison’s solos, Elling goes into overdrive, palpably inspired by the spirit in Morrison’s playing. Here are two nonchalant jazz stars, brimming with confidence and very much in top form.

Four & 1/2 stars