Review | Kurt Elling at the London Jazz Festival – he reinvents songs with his staggering jazz chops
Kurt Elling's four-octave vocal range and easy-swinging style makes him a kind of Sinatra with superpowers, ably supported by the retooled Swingles.
We hear singers all the time – perfectly serviceable ones who can carry a tune and sometimes touch our hearts. But it comes as a shock to hear a proper singer like Kurt Elling. The Chicago native is often described as a “singers' singer”, which suggests a bit of a Joe Satriani-style show-off. But, with Elling, his vocal dexterity, range and agility is always in service of The Song.
Elling's rich, chewy baritone – and his easy-swinging, ring-a-ding-ding delivery on the Great American Songbook – often recalls Frank Sinatra. But his staggering jazz chops turn him into a kind of Sinatra with superpowers. Just when you think he's at the top of his register, he'll fly an octave higher; when you expect him to pause and take a breath he'll find another tank of air and sustain a low note for another four bars; when you expect another instrument to take a solo, he'll do it himself, taking us on an Ornette Coleman-esque sonic journey around all four octaves of his vocal range.
And, assisted by a smart band, he completely reinvents songs. Come Fly With Me is transformed into an airborne jazz-waltz; U2's Where the Streets Have No Name is a slow-burning folk-funk epic; Nature Boy a wordless scat. An old track, Tanya Jean, is a half-improvised vocalese epic, reminding us that he's a mean Kerouac-style beat poet.
Just as impressive were opening act the Swingles, the latest incarnation of the a cappella institution founded in Paris in 1963 by Ward Swingle. They're now a London-based septet who've been retooled for the 21st century, with nods to Glee (which they've featured on) and Pitch Perfect. Tonight's set features stunning reinventions of songs by the likes of John Martyn, Elbow and Mumford & Sons, with subtle beatboxing and audacious harmonies. More superhero singing to truly raise goosebumps.
Four stars: * * * *