Sholto Byrnes: Talking Jazz

This column has not always been noted for its friendliness towards jazz vocalists. That, I would contend, is only because many who call themselves such have not proved themselves worthy to bear the mantle of the jazz tradition. But praise will be given where it is due, and it is certainly owed to an American singer whose European tour brings him to the PizzaExpress Jazz Club in Soho from tomorrow night. Thirty-eight-year-old Kurt Elling is quite simply the most remarkable jazz vocalist of his generation, and just as much of a find as Bobby McFerrin was when he arrived 20 years ago.
You’re less likely to have heard of Elling, though, as the Chicagoan lacks the commercial-friendly touch that gave McFerrin a genuine hit with “Don’t Worry, Be Happy”. Instead, there’s a thrilling severity to Elling’s approach that allows him to rank with the most serious of instrumentalists.

He can sing (and write) relatively straightforward melodies, such as the lovely “Man in the Air”, the title track of his 2003 Blue Note album. In this aspect alone, he is already superior to the dime-a-dozen crooners who crop up like clockwork nowadays. But what raises him way above the rest is his quite staggering ability at scatting and vocalese.

Both of these are very difficult disciplines, requiring a dexterity far beyond that necessary merely to interpret a song. The exponents of vocalese – the art of setting words both to instrumental tunes and to solos – have never numbered many, but include the illustrious names of Eddie Jefferson and Jon Hendricks, who has tackled compositions by everyone from Count Basie to Rachmaninoff.

But I’m not sure anyone has attempted anything quite as ambitious as Elling’s vocalese version of “Resolution” from Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, a work that inspires such awe that few dare touch it. Elling not only brings the spiritual aspect of the piece clearly to the fore, but magnificently sings his way through the entirety of Coltrane’s tenor sax solo. It’s one of those very rare occasions – one other that springs to mind is the take by Elling’s mentor, Mark Murphy, on Freddie Hubbard’s “Red Clay” – when a definitive masterpiece is reinterpreted in a manner that complements and almost equals the original.

As for Elling’s scatting, nobody can match him for speed, invention and attack in this department. His recording of Herbie Hancock’s “Eye of the Hurricane” with the Bob Mintzer Big Band is absolutely astounding. One breathtaking solo is followed by a later duel with Mintzer, in which the leader’s sax is utterly trounced by the machine-gun syllables and wild screeching of his guest vocalist.

Nat “King” Cole it ain’t. But to find out what jazz singing is really about, Elling’s your man.