Kurt Elling wants audiences to fly with him in a celebration of Frank Sinatra, writes Jim Gilchrist
For those of us of a certain age, it’s hard – and not a little disquieting – to realise that Ol’ Blue Eyes would have been 100 this year. That’s right: Francis Albert Sinatra was born in Hoboken, New Jersey, on 12 December, 1915. One of the best-selling and most influential singers of the 20th century, Sinatra’s legacy will be celebrated in style next week, when the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra joins forces with a Grammy award-winning voice more than able to do the Sinatra songbook justice, the mighty, four-octave baritone of Kurt Elling.
The SNJO’s Kurt Elling Swings Sinatra tour, which kicks off on Wednesday in the Sage, Gateshead, before thundering through Dundee, Aberdeen, Edinburgh and Glasgow, re-unites the big band with the American jazz vocalist with whom they’ve collaborated memorably several times in recent years.
Last year’s Syntopicon tour, saw the singer and the SNJO’s director, saxophonist Tommy Smith, delve into philosophical concepts for musical inspiration. Similarly, Elling’s consistently Grammy-nominated discography, including his Grammy-winning Dedicated to You, encompasses the encyclopaedic interests of a poet-philosopher-singer of formidable ability. His repertoire can range from jazz classics to newly written vocalese – his own lyrics married to famous instrumental solos; from King Crimson to Duke Ellington; and from Sufi poetry to Walt Whitman. Rather like Whitman, in fact, Elling seems to “contain multitudes”.
His newly released eleventh album, Passion World (Concord) is something of a summation of these multifarious interests, its songs spanning continents and genres, drawing on such diverse sources as Pat Metheny and U2, Björk and James Joyce, as well trawling material from Cuba (Bonita Cuba), France (La Vie en Rose) and Poland (Me Jedyne Niebo). And not least, it also includes the rendition of The Loch Tay Boat Song, with which he memorably concluded last year’s concerts with the SNJO.
“Passion World came together for a number of reasons,” Elling tells me, speaking from Cologne, where he was performing with the WDR Big Band (who also feature on the album), “the first being that I’m curious about the world and I want to connect with people, and one of the ways I try to connect, as I did the last time I was in Scotland, is to try and find things from the local situation that might have some emotional resonance. It’s a good way for me to approach an audience with an open hand and make myself a little bit more vulnerable to them, and these things have been building up.”
So, amid this global cornucopia of inspiration, where does the Sinatra songbook fit in? “It’s foundational,” he responds, “not just for me but for any swinging singer worth their while. It’s my task as a jazz singer to have learned from Sinatra, from Mark Murphy, from Jon Hendricks – and these are just the male singers – and to take the best of them.
“But, given the overwhelming influence that he has had on the sonic palette, Sinatra is the one utterly necessary man.”
Sinatra’s supremely fluid voice and dynamic control are what makes him so enduring. “Never a bad note and seemingly effortless,” Elling observes. “Oftentimes, when I listen to my own recordings, like it or not, I can hear how hard I’m working and I can tell sometimes that I’ve not done something as well as it could be done, but that’s all part of taking risks.
“Sinatra was taking risks at every concert, but because of the flexibility and the simply voluptuous nature of the gift God gave him in that sound, he could do it all.”
The SNJO collaboration will see Elling deliver such favourites as Come Fly With Me, I’ve Got you under My Skin and You Make Me Feel So Young, with classic arrangements by Nelson Riddle and Quincy Jones alongside new settings by the likes of Florian Ross and Geoffrey Keezer, while Elling has contributed two arrangements of his own for The Way You Look Tonight and It Was a Very Good Year.
“Obviously we’ll be doing some of the classic Nelson Riddle things as they were written; that’s an important aspect,” he says, “but it’s also important to move the ball down the field, and the SNJO is uniquely qualified to do both the straight swinging stuff and to do the new stuff, so let’s go.”
• Kurt Elling and the SNJO play Caird Hall, Dundee, 21 May; Aberdeen Music Hall, 22 May; Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 23 May; and Glasgow City Halls, 24 May, www.snjo.co.uk