In a single three-hour session in March 1963, John Coltrane and the singer Johnny Hartman convened in a studio (along with the other members of Coltrane's legendary quintet) and recorded an album's worth of ballads that became one of the most beloved jazz vocal albums of all-time, the simply titled John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman. Both of those artists are long gone but their one-off collaboration inspired singer Kurt Elling to pay tribute in a tour that has now found its way to this live album, recorded at the Allen Room in Lincoln Center in early 2009.
Accompanied by the Laurence Hobgood Trio (Hobgood, piano and co-production, with Elling; Clark Sommers, bass; Ulysses Owens, drums), the tenor saxophonist Ernie Watts guesting on several tracks, and the Ethel string quartet, Elling performs his own takes on the six songs that comprised the original Coltrane-Hartman album, plus several others in a similar vein, most drawn from the 1962 Coltrane album Ballads (which did not include Hartman).
Elling possesses one of the warmest, most romantic voices in jazz-pop today, and he is ideally suited for these standards, songs such as Billy Strayhorn's "Lush Life," Sammy Cahn's "Dedicated to You," and Jimmy Van Heusen's "Nancy with the Laughing Face." All of these tunes have, of course, been interpreted by probably hundreds of other singers, but Elling's grace, command, and nuanced phrasing put him, with his expressive baritone and obvious affection for this material, well into the upper echelon.
The musicians are particularly sympathetic, knowing when to use restraint and when to step out a bit, and the lushness provided by the strings juxtaposes perfectly with Watts' meaty tenor work. What makes the tribute that much more worthy is that Elling and crew (including Watts) don't attempt to re-create the Coltrane-Hartman session so much as channel its essence. "Dedicated to You" is not an echo, which would be a pointless exercise, but a beautifully realized work in its own right.