Sydney Town Hall, May 11
It’s been fascinating to follow. Some 22 years ago Kurt Elling burst on to the international jazz scene as an already extraordinarily distinctive singer and improviser. Initially he was too eager to shower us with all the options at his disposal: his range, array of timbres, virtuoso scatting, vocalese and lyric-writing. Sometimes he’d cram it all into one song, as if he were so fired up with invention that he lost sight of the beauty of simplicity.
But as the years passed Elling learned restraint was also an option, as was refining his sound. Among the hallmarks of this concert – and the Live in New York album he recorded with James Morrison this past January – was the fact that, as his remarkable voice ages, it grows darker and richer. This enhanced all aspects of his work, and, in this particular repertoire, made his improvising less edgy: a sonic portrait of a significant artist as a middle-aged man, if you like.
This Elling/Morrison collaboration is an improbable one, the former having spent his career restlessly pushing boundaries; the latter content to stay comfortably within them. Sometimes Elling’s artiness has seemed overly self-conscious, a criticism that could never be made of the crowd-pleasing Morrison. The collaboration resulted in a more relaxed and playful Elling; one who emphasised swinging hard as much as creative hipness. The curiosity was that when all his cards were laid bare for All the Way (which he began a cappella), the beauty was so austere. Should Elling become brave enough to be vulnerable, he will achieve a greatness that currently evades him.
Morrison’s all-Australian band consisted of New York-based tenor saxophonist Troy Roberts (who is also on the new album, and who contributed a silken solo to I Was Telling Her about You), pianist Grant Windsor, guitarist William Morrison, bassist Harrison Morrison and drummer Patrick Danao. Morrison’s finest work came when, against just his sons and Danao, he played an exquisitely subtle flugelhorn solo on the bossa nova The Night Was Sultry.