Kurt Elling and Cécile McLorin Salvant dazzle at Cadogan Hall

In contemplating last weekend’s LJF gala events, I had every expectation of a perfect three-way vocal experience. First up it was to be Cécile McLorin Salvant on Saturday at Cadogan Hall, someone new to me but fresh and exciting, then the more familiar Allen Toussaint and his New Orleans songs at the Barbican on Sunday and finally, a day later, the unique Kurt Elling back again at Cadogan Hall. Sadly, as the whole world knows, Allen Toussaint passed away in Madrid following his concert appearance there and a house-full ticket refund was the outcome. This, given Cassandra Wilson’s difficult night at the RFH the same evening must have made Sunday a Serious nightmare, although director John Cumming assured me that other events that night more than made up for it.

Salvant is still young, and radiates a kind of innocent joy, taking each song on a journey of discovery, playing games with tempo and pitch and delighting in the entire concert experience. Clad in a cape-like throw striped in green and mauve, with black and white striped leggings, and wearing her trademark white-framed specs, she had dressed to kill and she did, evoking a continuous array of reactions from whoops to cheers and back again. Happily, for those of us who know her albums, she had her first-call band with her, notably the brilliant pianist Aaron Diehl, a man whose John Lewis-like classic touch and vivid imagination makes him an equal partner in the Salvant concert enterprise. Add in bassist Paul Sikivie and drummer Laurence Leathers and you have a compelling package that should continue to entrance international concertgoers for decades to come.  

She sings in French on some songs, these mostly self-composed, echoing her part-French origins and sounds sweet when she does, but it’s her evocations of classic songs that seem to prompt her most profound explorations. Just to hear her sing ‘I Wish I Could Shimmy’ at the slowest possible pace is enlightening as was the more suggestive ‘You Gotta Give Me Some’ from the Bessie Smith repertoire, Salvant arch and delighting in its in-built innuendo. This showed off Diehl’s stride chops and had the trio kicking hard, ahead of ‘Something Coming’ from West Side Story, again with the pianist’s filigree touch foregrounded. Salvant is the real deal, a vocalist who takes risks, listens to her accompanists and improvises irresistibly in the moment.

KurtElling MG 4579

Elling radiates bonhomie too, but is more theatrical, grittier maybe, his grey suit tightly buttoned, standing firm, like a Chicagoan should, hands outstretched, as that great tree-trunk of a baritone voice resonates and builds into an almost operatic series of crescendos. He had already made a guest appearance with The Swingles, the clever close-harmony group who opened for him. Here he commenced his set with a straight reading of ‘La Vie En Rose’ which seemed like a tribute to those who had lost their lives in Paris, before he let rip with ‘Come Fly With Me’, this featuring a lengthy, florid solo excursion by pianist/organist Stu Mindeman, the vocal ascending as the band built behind him, Elling moving way beyond Sinatra’s template. This was a bravura performance as was ‘Nature Boy’, the lyrics subtly changed, and suffused with a scat routine of quite dazzling virtuosity, with drummer Ulysses Owens Jr, matching him lick for lick.

There were speeches, even a burst of poetry and a sense of heartfelt concern for victims of violence everywhere from Elling, plus a modest plug for Passion World, his latest album, from which a number of these songs were drawn. ‘Skylark’, taken for another technically accomplished outing was the encore, before Elling bowed, the band (completed by bassist Clarke Sommers and the versatile guitarist John McLean) readying to move on to Helsinki on Tuesday. He’s a man of incredible, harnessed drive, huge vocal energy, and very possibly the finest jazz vocalist on the planet.

– Peter Vacher

– Photos by Roger Thomas

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