Among his many musical interests, Kurt Elling has long been an avid interpreter of standards. However in recent years he has focused his attention on more contemporary repertoire and occasional forays into original material, culminating in his stunning masterpiece, "The Man in the Airâ€ and the less successful follow up, "Nightmoves." In this concept album dedicated to the musical collaboration of John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman we find him once again delving into the Great American Songbook.
As any long time Elling fan can attest, the man can swing like crazy and is both a fearless improviser and creative wordsmith, especially when engaging in one of his virtuosic vocalising flights of fancy. Less apparent to the Elling neophyte is his ability to wrap himself around a ballad. Anyone familiar with the legendary Coltrane/Hartman sessions knows the exploration of the ballad is what that collaboration was all about. (If you don't have that CD in your collection, stop reading this and buy it now.) In an unlikely musical partnership, Coltrane's modernist and unsentimental tenor sax was the perfect counterpoint to Hartman's velvety smooth baritone, creating an instant classic.
Elling is no Johnny Hartman, but he is a great interpreter of a ballad in his own right. What he lacks in timbre he more than makes up for in interpretation. Elling has a literary bent and knows that a singer's first job is to focus on the meaning of the lyric. Listen to him on "Lush Life" - you can hear the bitterness and self-indulgence of that timeless Strayhorn lyric. On "Dedication" he is his own man, long past imitation, comfortable and gracefully purring his way through such chestnuts as "Autumn Serenade" and "Over and Over Again." But Elling fans be forewarned: if you're looking for vocal pyrotechnics, there is almost no scatting on this album - the songs are the primary focus here.
Like the album it is honoring, "Dedicated to You" is also a collaborative effort, not so much with tenor sax man Ernie Watts as with Elling's long time pianist Lawrence Hobgood. Opting for a string quartet over a larger section, Hobgood's string arrangements are the epitome of good taste and refinement. The parts were clearly designed for each voice to mingle with and inspire the group interplay, augmenting but never stepping on the music. Check out the magnificent strings only accompaniment to "My One and Only Love" or the lovely coda to "You are Too Beautiful." Hobgood has serious arranging chops.
Special mention must be made of Hobgood's piano playing. He is a consummate accompanist and a stellar soloist who really deserves wider recognition. He has the musical ideas, lyricism and rhythmic drive to make his solos a constant source of surprise and delight. Elling is one lucky singer. Ernie Watts also turns in some fine performances, particularly on "Say It (Over and Over)", where you can hear the spirit of Coltrane informing his solo in some of his more expansive melodic flurries.
I heartily recommend this album for Elling fans and non-initiates alike. While I suppose it would make a charming addition to a candlelight dinner, "Dedicated to You" is much more than that. It is an album to be savored like fine wine, slowly and with total concentration in order to capture all its subtle notes.