Back in the early 80s there was quite a rivalry between Elvis Costello and Joe Jackson as I remember. At the time, Elvis might have claimed victory but it was with a Joe Jackson song, Stepping Out that Kurt Elling opened his first night at Ronnie’s: A victory of sorts? The club seemed the perfect setting for this band. A little theatre in a semi-circle round the stage. The rythmn section of Laurence Hobgood, Kurt’s regular accompanist, Harish Raghaven, bass and young (ish) Troy Miller on drums – 30 odd is still young right? – set up a swing vamp over a bass pedal note, Kurt steps out of the door at the back of the stage and they are stepping out. It all seemed so right and comfortable. And I felt wrapped up and embraced by the chat, the extraordinary vocal performance so apparently effortless but be-dazzling in range and agility, the burning soloing from Laurence Hobgood and the more tortured, wrung out but still bluesy, melodic lines from guest guitarist John Mclean. I found John McLean’s striking resemblance to the one of the Baldwin’s a little disconcerting (you know – movie star brothers).
Elling’s voice is a beautifully balanced part of the sound of this band. The lyrics really matter, and sometimes you get his lyrics set to what sounds like an instrumental solo line, but he can improvise like a sax when scatting or become the other half of a percussion duet with Troy Miller on drums as warm up to a funkier guitar led number. Its brilliant and his huge reputation and multiple Grammy nominations are richly deserved.
The balance of the material on this evening was towards the jazzily intrepreted pop canon, Norwegian Wood making an appearance in a heavily arranged form with poetry declaimed in the middle. But there were exquisite readings of You are Too Beautiful and Moonlight Serenade and the evening finished with Nature Boy and more wild scatting. This was music from right inside the modern jazz sensibility that at no point seemed confined by it The band’s erudition and virtuosity seemed lightly worn; perhaps there is another gear there, even for this band, amazingly this was Troy Miller’s first gig with the band. Living up to expectations is a tough call but I skipped out with grin on my face to a buzzing Soho evening hoping that was the first of many evenings with Kurt for me.