Scottish National Jazz Orchestra on song with Kurt Elling at Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh
Of all the illustrious guests SNJO has welcomed to Scotland, Kurt Elling seems to be the one who has made himself most at home. This might be because the Chicagoan singer spent a year in Edinburgh as a student and used to catch the then regular Friday jazz concerts, including some by SNJO director Tommy Smith, in this very venue. Whatever the reason, however, there's certainly a very strong rapport between singer and orchestra who have worked together at London Jazz Festival and Jazz sous les Pommier in Normandy and on SNJO's latest album, American Adventure, as well as on a previous Scottish liaison.
This latest project premiered a new set of arrangements under the title 'Syntopicon' and if the idea – mostly familiar pieces reimagined to represent themes such as knowledge, wisdom, language and joy – had a certain chewy intellectual conceit, the result was simple: a set of world class performances. Elling handled the explanations and introductions like a matey, very musical professor to the extent that the between-song monologues became as much a part of the performance as his stunning, perfectly enunciated, richly toned singing.
The arrangements were superb, with Christian Elsasser's setting of Paul Simon's 'American Tune' and Geoffrey Keezer's orchestration of 'Somewhere' proving particular highlights, and Elling's voice and rhythm section revisiting of 'A New Body & Soul', with its startling vocalese, was an added bonus when set alongside a variety of approaches that included a heavyweight holocaust victim's story stitched into Wayne Shorter's 'Go', a hep cat jive talking take on John Scofield's gospel-groovy 'Jeep on 35', and the transformation of a traditional Scots song learned from the Corries into a bona fide jazz ballad.