Review: Jordan, Elling, Krog at LJF 2012

Andy Hamilton covers a midweek trio of singers at the London Jazz Festival - Sheila Jordan, Kurt Elling, and Karin Krog with fellow Scandinavian Bengt Hallberg. Has anyone else noted shades of Jack Nicholson's Joker in the extraordinary Elling's stage persona?

Sheila Jordan is one of the most creative interpreters of a lyric in jazz. She's now 83 but her performance at the Queen Elizabeth Hall belied her years – she was totally on song, beginning and ending her set with a blues. The opening Hum Drum Blues was from her classic 1962 Blue Note album Portrait Of Sheila, one of the most memorable of all jazz vocal recordings. Then followed Wouldn't It Be Loverly, a Latin version of All Or Nothing At All, and Jimmy Webb's The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress. The estimable Brian Kellock is her regular pianist on UK visits, and Sheila was rightly lavish in her praise – "I love this cat," she affirmed. Bassist Kenny Ellis and drummer Stu Richie completed the trio. After their instrumental version of Falling In Love With Love, the singer returned for Dat Dere with Oscar Brown's lyrics that she made her own, Sonny Rollins's Pent Up House – with hilarious lyrics she wrote herself – and a blues. The encore featured a moving version of Benny Goodman's torch song theme, Goodbye.

Kurt EllingSheila Jordan's performance, entrancing though it was, was no preparation for the emotional tsunami that followed. The thunderous reception for Kurt Elling (pictured right) – his fan-club were there, and duly went wild – was followed by the act to end all acts. While Ms Jordan benefits from an intimate club venue, Elling's act is big enough to fill a stadium. With what seemed at first like a rictus grin, and hand gestures mannered enough that it was a relief when he finally lifted the mic off the stand, there was a touch of David Lynch, or Jack Nicholson's Joker, about the event. It was the most incredible and exciting stage performance nonetheless. His superb American rhythm section – John McLean (guitar), Laurence Hobgood (piano), Clark Sommers (bass), Bryan Carter (drums) – was full on, Elling helping them out redundantly on tambourine. He several times praised Sheila Jordan – "She was there when the table was set," referring to her Charlie Parker lineage – and both singers in different ways are genuine interpreters of the lyric.  Both fully understand the requirements of the microphone and handle it expertly. But in Elling's case, the vocal resonance and stage mannerisms sometimes smothered meaning and sense, while the mixing desk often had him too loud.

But what resonance, and what mannerisms! They proved contagious for guitarist John McLean – who seemed to develop a rare case of spontaneous rickets during one impassioned, knock-kneed solo. The set's theme came from Elling's new album 1619 Broadway - The Brill Building Project, and featured The Drifters' On Broadway, and a delightful unplugged version of Ray Charles's R&B hit Lonely Avenue, with bass accompaniment and the band on backing vocals. That took the temperature down, before Burt Bacharach's wonderful A House Is Not A Home, which got the intensely moving jazz interpretation it had been waiting for. Elling explained a romantic debt to the 1959 cover of Harry Warren and Al Dubin's I Only Have Eyes For You, by doo-woppers The Flamingos – here the guitar fuzz was a slight irritation in an otherwise brilliant updating. The set concluded with an incandescent Nature Boy in which Elling outdid his earlier frenetic scatting, and the guitarist redeemed himself with a smoother, jazz guitar-sounding solo. I contrived to leave without realising there would be an encore – Elling and Jordan duetting on Moody's Mood and Lester Leaps In – but incredibly, that still made nearly three hours of music.

Elling's set was jazz on steroids, with a massive power – often over-amplified, with over-the-top use of looping and echo electronics by the singer. Elling has a huge voice, in that way perhaps paralleling Scott Walker. Elling's banter over the musical intros was witty enough, but also clichéd in a way that added to a surreal quality, a sense of the grotesquely larger-than-life. At times there was something a little creepy or macabre about the proceedings – hints of David Lynch, in that safe and ordinary things were made uncanny. This is not something I've ever noticed on Elling's recordings, and it might be that his music is better heard on disc – but then that would mean missing what is, despite my reservations, one of the most exciting stage presences in jazz.

In comparison to the concert events, the Scandinavian duo of Karin Krog (Norway) and Bengt Hallberg (Sweden) at the Forge was an intimate, even polite affair – but one of equal musical quality. Now aged 80, and a little unsteady on his feet, Hallberg is a dapper figure still, tall in white jacket, scarlet bow-tie, cummerbund and top-pocket handkerchief. Like Thelonious Monk, he created a modern jazz piano style that in solo contexts drew on stride piano. At the Forge it took him a little time to warm up and get into his stride, pun not intended. If the time was not as razor-sharp as in his prime – I'm thinking of his wonderful duo album from the 70s with Krog, Two Of A Kind on Meantime – the ideas were fresh as ever, and the playing was all the more affecting, with the finest interpretations probably the slow ones. 

The pianist began each set with some solo numbers – for the first, Tea For Two, Alexander's Ragtime Band – an unusual choice – I Fall In Love Too Easily, and Sweet Georgia Brown. When Karin Krog joined him, they began with Lieber and Stoller's quirky Feeling Too Good Today Blues, for which the pianist, unusually, had to fish out a lead sheet. The set continued with I Was Doing Alright, Just You Just Me, My Man and Three Little Words and concluded with Ellington's Prelude To A Kiss and In A Mellotone. They are a totally empathetic pair, their witty, quirky styles well-matched. On this occasion, Krog perhaps seemed a little nervous about her partner, though she needn't have worried. (It turns out that although they go back a long way, they don't do too many gigs together these days.)

Hallberg begins the second set with a rather baroque interpretation of the Swedish folk song popularised in jazz by Stan Getz, Dear Old Stockholm - the pianist recorded with him in the early 50s, while Getz was touring Sweden and he was still at school. The pianist continued solo with a British medley including Noel Coward's waltz I'll See You Again, and The Lambeth Walk – certainly not a jazz favourite. Krog then joined him for Don't Get Scared - a blues with lyrics by Jon Hendricks - Thou Swell, her own original Who Knows, Jeepers Creepers. They concluded with a very moving interpretation of Stardust that began with the verse, and then presented the chorus in a halting stride style. Cabin In The Sky was the encore. Krog has described Hallberg as one of the most original and greatest of European jazz pianists – I wonder how many in the audience realised that that is no less than the truth.

Kurt Elling photo: Tim Dickeson

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