Having been in the enviable position of hearing Kurt Elling live at Chicago's intimate, former speakeasy the Green Mill on SRO evenings, I wondered if his mellifluous tonality and spot-on phrasing could come equally alive on a recording.
On Elling's eighth album, and second release on Concord Jazz, entitled Dedicated to You: Kurt Elling Sings the Music of Coltrane and Hartman, my doubts were allayed. Elling's first album with Concord, Nightmoves, contrasted by encompassing a wider range of repertoireâ€”spanning works from Brazilian composer Carlos Jobim to Keith Jarrett , and including surprises like harmonica czar Howard Levy. But here, Elling can settle into the smoky laissez-faire of the already proven past.
Elling is a master at vocalese, an eight-time Grammy nominee, a recipient of four Jazz Journalists Association awards for Best Male Vocalist, and recipient of the Prix Billie Holiday from the Academe du Jazz in Paris. Here he is joined by saxophonist Ernie Watts, the string quartet known as Ethel, and the Laurence Hobgood Trio. Unparalled on piano, Hobgood also serves as co-arranger.
The idea for this concept album began when friends from the Chicago Jazz Festival asked Elling to reiterate the Coltrane/Hartman material for an event in the works. Elling agreed to go on tour, but chose to put his own spin on the materialâ€”the unique idea of using a string quartet along with horn, keys, bass, and percussion to offset Elling's voice and provide a sweeping backdrop for the 12 classic tunes at hand.
The opener, "All or Nothing at Allâ€, scintillates using a bolero rhythm. "It's Easy to Rememberâ€, which is a "jazz story memoryâ€, features Elling imagining the rapport that was cultivated between Coltrane and Hartman on a snowy evening as they prepared to record a variety of their most-loved tunes. This suspenseful and confessional narrative defines the honesty of the album and prepares the listener for the range of free to avant-garde styles courtesy of Watts and the Shearing-infused block chords, imaginative noodling, and skillful but unpredictable key and tempo transgressions employed by Hobgood. To that mÃ©lange, add a sprinkling of pizzicato and you get a divine time capsule of jazz synapse.
"There's a wide spectrum of possibilities in how to deliver a song,â€ says Elling, and several of the album's stand-outs support his thesis. "Lush Lifeâ€, recorded by Nat King Cole in '49, Natalie Cole in '91, and made famous as well by Frank Sinatra, is a Billy Strayhorn classic barreling forth lyrics such as, "Life is lonely again and only last year / Everything seemed so sure / Now life is awful again / Although full of hearts could only be a boreâ€. Elling meets Morgana King somewhere towards the penultimate measure. It takes a superb interpreter like Elling to make this song freshâ€”as its beautiful melody camouflagues a dirgeâ€”but Elling crisps the cadences and throws in some register punches that cast a shimmering halo throughout.
"My One and Only Loveâ€ makes excellent use of Ethel, while "Nancy with the Laughing Faceâ€, recorded in '44 by Jimmy Van Heusen, bounces a-twitter with such phrases as, "Picture a tomboy with lace / No angel could replace / My Nancy with the laughing faceâ€. Elling massages this perfectly structured text and embues it with blushing romance as he opines, "When she speaks you would think she was singingâ€. While here Watts provides a deliciously, savory solo-light, he becomes virtuosic when playing the instrumental "What's Newâ€.
Hobgood's exhilarating piano whips through "Dedicated to Youâ€ like the Terminator, contrasting Elling's ability as he creates a wistful ballad constructed as if his voice were the loving hands of Pinocchio's Geppetto. "Say It (Over and Over Again)â€ displays a Billie Holiday-esque depth and rancor as Elling convincingly and coyly pulses, "When I say I love youâ€ or "Never stop saying that you're mineâ€.