A Tribute Supreme

Since the mid-1990s, no singer in jazz has been as daring, dynamic or interesting as Kurt Elling. The onetime theology student from Chicago has found a fresh musical territory by channeling, in equal parts, Frank Sinatra, bebop hipster Mark Murphy and an all-night poetry slam.
With his soaring vocal flights, his edgy lyrics and sense of being on a musical mission, he has come to embody the creative spirit in jazz — which makes his current project all the more surprising.

Elling has never seemed a likely choice to waltz down the tribute trail, but tomorrow night he will be at the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater with his interpretation of one of the most beloved jazz recordings. He calls the program “Dedicated to You,” after one of the songs from “John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman,” a 1963 album that jazz listeners have long treasured as one of the most romantic records ever made.

Elling knows better than to try to improve on perfection. Instead, he and his trio — augmented by saxophonist Ernie Watts and the genre-shattering Ethel String Quartet — will filter Coltrane and Hartman through their own modern sensibilities.

“For me, it wouldn’t be very interesting to reiterate the past,” Elling said in a recent interview. “The best way to respect what’s gone before, especially with someone like John Coltrane, is to continue to try to innovate.”

Elling’s Coltrane-Hartman project began about four years ago, when the Chicago Jazz Festival commissioned a concert from him. Last year, he and his longtime musical partner, pianist Laurence Hobgood, added some new arrangements and emerged with a program that presses into the future while respecting the past.

The 41-year-old Elling has won Down Beat magazine’s critics’ poll as the top male singer for the past eight years and has released seven CDs in his relatively young career. A live recording of the Coltrane-Hartman program at New York’s Lincoln Center will be released later this year.

Elling is still based in his native Chicago — he bought his condo four years ago from the nation’s new No. 1 jazz fan, Barack Obama — but in the past year, he has been spending more time in New York with his wife and 3-year-old daughter.

His circuitous path to jazz wound its way through divinity school at the University of Chicago, which he quit one credit short of a master’s in the philosophy of religion. His father is a Lutheran church organist and minister of music, “so I was always exposed to the idea of the higher purpose of music.”

In concert, Elling is apt to quote Walt Whitman, Jack Kerouac, Saint John of the Cross or the 13th-century Persian poet Rumi, and somehow it all works. But even as he pushes vocal jazz in new directions, Elling still keeps his ears open to the music’s history.

“If you’re going to be a jazz singer,” he says, “you have to listen to all the great singers of the past. I want all those sounds inside me.”

With his latest project, Elling is helping revive the forgotten career of his fellow Chicagoan Johnny Hartman. The two aren’t that similar in vocal styles — Elling is an experimenter, and Hartman was a pure interpreter of song, with a burnished voice, elegant phrasing and an intimate way of reading lyrics.

More than 25 years after Hartman’s death, people still marvel at the pure beauty of his sound.

“Such a warm, masculine baritone voice,” pianist and jazz broadcaster Billy Taylor has said of Hartman, whom he first met in the 1940s. “Oh boy, I’d love to sing like that.”

Hartman had style and taste, and people thought he would be the black Sinatra, or at least the second coming of Billy Eckstine, a once-popular African American crooner. He had everything going for him except luck.

In the 1950s, he recorded excellent but little-heard albums for minor labels that went out of business or didn’t promote him. When a major label (RCA) picked him up, he was dropped after recording just 16 songs.

By 1963, when he got the call to record with Coltrane, he hadn’t been in a studio for four years. Hartman didn’t think he and the avant-garde Coltrane would make a good fit, but they worked on a few tunes and decided to give it a try.

While driving to the studio, Hartman heard a song by Nat King Cole on the radio and added it to the session. It was “Lush Life,” Billy Strayhorn’s world-weary ode to missed chances and dashed hopes.

With its difficult intervals and tricky rhythms, “Lush Life” is notoriously hard to sing, but Hartman and Coltrane nailed it in a single take. (Coltrane overdubbed a minor obbligato part a few days later.)

It would become the emotional centerpiece of their album and is as perfect in its way as a Shakespeare sonnet or a Picasso sketch.

Hartman closes the tune on a high note that sounds off-key at first. But as Coltrane and his quartet reach toward the final chord, Hartman’s note hangs in the air like a profound, unanswerable question.

Critics and musicians loved the record, and Hartman seemed poised at last to find wider fame. An Esquire magazine writer once pronounced “John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman” the greatest album ever made — not just the finest jazz or vocal album, but the greatest album in the history of recorded music.

Will Friedwald, the foremost critic of jazz singing, has called Hartman “one of the greatest interpreters of love songs that ever lived,” with “the gift of making you feel every word.”

But the album was a success without being a hit, and after Hartman made a few more records in the mid-1960s, he drifted back into obscurity.

He never stopped singing, though, and was having something of a revival in the early 1980s when he received his only Grammy nomination for an album called “Once in Every Life.” Unfortunately, the record — which Hartman considered his finest — has never been released on CD.

In 1983, his lifelong smoking habit caught up with him, and he died of lung and throat cancer at age 60.

His story might have ended there, if not for one well-placed fan. When Clint Eastwood was making “The Bridges of Madison County” in 1995, he wanted to underscore the movie’s bittersweet love story with the most romantic music he could find.

He turned to Hartman and included several of his songs on the film’s soundtrack. Twelve years after his death, Hartman finally had the popular success he never found while alive.

“The irony is sad and tragic,” Elling says. “Johnny Hartman sang so beautifully and naturally, his voice fusing with the integrity of what Coltrane and those cats were doing.”

Johnny Hartman has been called the “great lost balladeer” and the most neglected singer of his time. But this much is certain: No one who hears his voice will ever forget it.

Dedicated to You, Kurt Elling’s tribute to Johnny Hartman and John Coltrane, featuring saxophonist Ernie Watts and the Ethel String Quartet, will be at the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater tomorrow at 7:30 and 9:30 p.m. Both shows are sold out.