A Salute to Coltrane and Hartman

“John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman,” the classic 1963 collection of romantic ballads, is so beloved by jazz and pop fans alike that a concert salute to the recording is an easy sell. The hard part comes in creating a performance that sounds worthy of Coltrane and Hartman’s inspired and seemingly effortless collaboration, something fresh and inventive.
Vocalist Kurt Elling and tenor saxophonist Ernie Watts pulled off that trick at the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater on Saturday night during a sold-out concert dubbed “Dedicated To You,” aided by pianist and longtime Elling collaborator Laurence Hobgood’s imaginative string orchestrations.

While no one will ever mistake Elling’s bop-rooted delivery for Hartman’s suave balladry, the inherent contrast of styles proved a plus, allowing for a series of distinctive and often surprising interpretations of tunes drawn from the Coltrane-Hartman recording and related sources.

A devoted disciple of Charlie Parker, Elling often phrased a lyric the way his bop heroes might phrase a melody — that is, when he wasn’t displaying more idiosyncratic tendencies. At one point, he capped an improvisation with a pinched, droning tone that brought to mind the sound of didigderoo.

Yet for the most part Elling kept his outre instincts in check, scatting in sync with Watts’s fluid tenor, improvising with harmonic finesse and infusing “Lush Life” and other ballads with the full weight of his resonant baritone.

Watts, meanwhile, held up his end of the bargain, gliding though the chord progressions with soulful elan. The combination of Hobgood’s interactive trio and the Ethel String Quartet’s crisply executed contributions helped sustain a lighthearted air of spontaneity and affection.