There are not many things for which I would make a 380+ mile round-trip for in the space of 14 hours. But Kurt Elling’s voice is one of them.
And not just once, either. Over the last couple of years, I have made this journey a handful of times (sometimes with longer time-frames, admittedly) and I have never been disappointed.
I first heard Kurt Elling’s voice when I was in my second year at LCM, and I was blown away. His tone is so expressive and beautiful – he’s like a tenor saxophone that can sing lyrics. And the lyrics that he writes are poignant, thought-provoking, inventive, funny.. All the things he himself is when performing.
I must admit to being a little obsessed with the music of this man – it never gets boring to me, and I could literally sit and listen to his albums all day. So the first time that I went to watch him I was extremely excited to say the least! It was in the Barbican. He opened his set with ‘My Foolish Heart’ and his encore was ‘Minuano’ (which I had performed in my final recital a couple of months earlier, so I was beaming to hear it as it was meant). I even got to meet the man afterwards, though all I could say was “Thank you” over and over!
The second time I saw him was at the QE Hall in London’s Southbank Centre. This time, I was worried. He couldn’t possibly live up to all my heightened expectations, could he? I had seen Take 6 the previous evening, and they were quite literally awesome.. I was getting tense. Anyway, long story short, of course he lived up to them. He surpassed them.
My first visit to Ronnie Scotts was always going to be a bit special.. it’s an iconic venue, steeped in jazz tradition and famous the world over. I went with my best friend Mitt and we saw Elling – it was pretty perfect really.
It’s this sort of intimate club that I would prefer to see KE. He opens out, even more than usual, recites poetry over riffs and the whole band just seem at home in this environment. I felt compelled to write to him (c/o Ronnies) to say thank you for the gig (I hadn’t then started my daily Thank Yous) and though I’m not even sure if he got it, I’m pretty sure if he did he probably thinks I’m a bit weird! Ooops!
So anyway, back to March 2011.
I arrived in London this time at around 3 o’clock, with the concert due to start at 7:30. Although the sun had been shining gloriously in Leeds and all the journey down, when I stepped into Kings Cross, it had clouded over. Not to worry – I still intended to walk to Soho, and put my gloves on to combat the cold winds!
For years when I went to London, I would jump on the tube everywhere. It’s a novelty really. You’d go through some exciting looking tunnels and pop up exactly where in the city you wanted to be. I never did that in Newcastle, curiously, but then Newcastle (being almost home) was never quite as exciting at The Capital.
Recently, though, I’ve taken to walking the streets. It seems foolish to spend so much time under the city if you’re there to visit it. And actually, most of the time things aren’t as far from each other as you’d first imagine.
My plan was to walk to Leicester Square to meet my lovely friend Jack for a coffee. I did a little google map searching and found I could take a little detour to pass something of interest to me.
Then I wandered from the People’s Supermarket (now a little late for meeting Jack!) to Leicester Square for a hot chocolate and a catch-up. Having been shown the inside of the Garrick Theatre where Jack is based, I walked down to Trafalgar Square to say hi to Nelson and spend some time in the National Gallery.
Just before 6, I set off down Whitehall to the river. Sat opposite The Eye, dusk began to settle and Big Ben sang out that it was 6 o’clock so I headed to Embankment and to the Barbican Centre.
Having realised I was pretty hungry, I grabbed a sandwich from the cafe. Nothing particularly inspiring, nor worth the cost, but it did the job. And then it was Elling Time!
He opened the show with Joe Jackson’s ‘Stepping Out’. I first heard this at Ronnies and loved it: it’s inventive, it’s unexpected and it really swings. I should say that a lot of what he was ‘showcasing’ from his new album I had already heard at that Ronnie’s gig last year, and on the recording, as I had been very lucky to have been sent ‘The Gate’ a few weeks before it’s release by a lovely friend of mine. 🙂
He launched into his signature scatting, blazing through phrases and spiralling through his enviable range. Having heard this so many times, I am now not quite as blown away as I first was – purely for noticing his penchant for certain scatting syllables and fall-back rhythmic patterns. I guess that happens with anyone you listen to for hours on end, and it’s not to say that it isn’t highly skilful, or something I wish I was capable of!
Laurence Hobgood wasn’t featured quite as much as usual, I felt. But that was probably due to the introduction on John McLean on Guitar and Richard Galliano on Accordion. I had never heard Galliano before, and was interested to hear how he would fit into the customary set up. He entered subtly, playing a few beautiful lines; a picture of calm centre stage. When it came to the last tune of the first set – ‘Resolution’ by Coltrane – the whole band were burning. Tommy Smith joined on Tenor, and the familiar vocalese (I’d have this one nailed if it wasn’t for my range lacking that extra octave…!) was delivered perfectly. Galliano joined in the frenzied energy with an incredible solo and the whole thing made the audience buzz with anticipation for the second set.
I love the sound of a big band. I’ve been trying to work out what exactly It is that makes me smile so when hearing one.. It might be that powerful homophony that blasts out from the horns, creating beautiful chords and a feeling of great energy – in that respect being similar to a Gospel Choir.. Then again, It might not be. Nevertheless, the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra definitely had It.
The soloists, though not given much time to stretch out, showed themselves to be more than worthy to be on the stage, and the second set highlights (for me, and probably for most) were ‘Norwegian Wood’ and a Galliano composition called ‘Billie’ for which Elling had written lyrics. He preceded the rendition with a brief but moving explanation of his lyrical intention, where he said he hoped that what he had written could be extended to a greater understanding of the lyric, alluding to current political situations and the catastrophic events in Japan. ‘Maybe it can’t be stretched that far’ he said, ‘but that’s what I’ve got in me when I’m singing it, so I had to tell you’. The effect was a contemplative hush from the audience after the introduction of the song, and proof that it could be extended so.
The encore was ‘My Foolish Heart’ – bringing full circle my experiences of Elling Live. He could have undoubtedly carried on for hours longer, as the audience did not want him to leave but – as the man said himself – it was “a school night”, and so I headed back to Kings Cross. Weary and ready for sleep, I sat on the Leeds-bound train feeling both incredibly inspired and completely hopeless simultaneously – the mark of seeing a true great do what you can only wish you were capable of.
I urge you to visit Kurt Elling’s website and experience his music for yourself.