As sumptuous as Johnny Hartman's espresso-dark baritone was, his brand of balladeering remained forever steeped in conservatism. Indeed, when Hartman formed an unlikely but glorious union with John Coltrane in 1963, it was Coltrane who curbed his adventurousness, downshifting into Hartman's traditionalist zone and proving himself an invaluable partner in plush quietude. So the idea of as bold and brazen a vocal explorer as Kurt Elling revisiting Hartman's portion of the legendary collaboration (with the underappreciated Ernie Watts adroitly embracing the Coltrane role) seems akin to Allen Ginsberg devoting an evening to recitation of Emily Dickinson.
Truth is, of course, that nothing, not even as classic a blueprint as John Coltrane & Johnny Hartman, is going to rein Elling in. Recording live at Lincoln Center, Elling does color outside the lines, though with significantly less audacity than usual. Indeed, much of the flourish comes from his longtime partner-in-imagination, pianist Laurence Hobgood. It was Hobgood who wrote all-new arrangements and augmented his trio (bassist Clark Sommers and drummer Ulysses Owens) with the ETHEL string quartet.
But only Elling can be credited with the touches of masterful phrasingâ€”especially on "Lush Lifeâ€ and "My One and Only Loveâ€â€”that transform Hartman's black velvet canvas into an expanse of subdued vibrancy. And only Elling can be applauded for the graceful narrative poem he lays atop "It's Easy to Remember,â€ detailing the snow-covered morning when Coltrane and Hartman became briefly one, then separated to pursue such sharply divergent paths.