In 2006, Kurt Ellling, who has blossomed into the most striking male vocalist in jazz, created a concert tribute to the one album made by tenor sax legend John Coltrane, his landmark quartet of the early 1960s and the obscure, baritone singer Johnny Hartman. Lovingly revisited with inspired performances, Elling and sax man Ernie Watts resist treating the original as gospel, choosing instead to attack the material much as the leaders did in the studio in March 1963--one resonant take per tune.
Recorded at the Allen Room in the Jazz at Lincoln Center complex in New York, Elling and Watts rekindle the glow of Coltrane and Hartman, expanding the musical palette by including a string quartet that performs under the name Ethel. The original had the flavor of two men conversing late at night in easy chairs while sipping cognac; Elling and Watts give it the feeling of two men under the stars serenading a lover on a balcony above.
To extend the Hartman/Coltrane program to concert length, Elling and Watts tackle material that appeared on "Ballads," the album Coltrane released just prior to the vocal session with Hartman. The gentlest of the ballads, "Say It (Over and Over Again)" is Elling's shining moment here, his expressiveness matched with exquisite playing from pianist Laurence Hobgood, Watts and Ethel.
As with all Elling albums, considerable credit is due the supple and elegant pianist Hobgood, who handled all the arrangements and provides an appealing lightness on the 88s. (Hobgood has an album with Elling and bassist Charlie Haden coming out Aug. 11 on the Naim label).