An intimate reconsideration of an intimate moment in jazz history

“Mr. Elling has proved his finesse as a Hartman-like melodist…accessing both Coltrane and Hartman, he sounded like no one but himself.” – New York Times

In 1963, legends John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman issued their landmark recording of classic ballads. In 2009, vocalist Kurt Elling celebrates this collaboration with fellow Grammy winner, saxophonist Ernie Watts, Elling’s telepathic trio led by pianist/arranger Laurence Hobgood, and the electrified, electrifying ETHEL String Quartet. Dedicated to You: Kurt Elling Sings the Music of Coltrane and Hartman, was recorded live in the appropriately elegant Allen Room of Jazz at Lincoln Center, and the result is an intimate reconsideration of an intimate moment in jazz history.

Elling’s use of scat and vocalese, his original lyrics for such masterpieces as Coltrane’s “Revelation,” and his interpretations of such great instrumental works as Dexter Gordon’s sax solo on “Body and Soul” have put him at the creative apogee of modern jazz artists. His six Blue Note albums garnered seven Grammy nominations over ten years before he moved to Concord with 2007’s acclaimed Night Moves, receiving yet another Grammy nomination. Recently Elling was awarded his 10th Top Male Vocalist honor by the 2009 Downbeat Critic’s Poll and, for the fifth time, garnered the same from the Jazz Journalists Association.

Not inclined toward tribute albums, Elling first performed the Coltrane/Hartman songbook in 2006 for a commission by the Chicago Jazz Festival in honor of Coltrane’s 80th birthday. Soon the one-night gig became a national tour, including a performance at the 2008 Monterey Jazz Festival. Next came the request to record the show live at Jazz at Lincoln Center. Notes Elling, “It seemed like an organic progression of a time-tested endeavor. How could we resist?”

If you had a chance to catch this show on tour, you’ll find yourself reliving the music and commentary; not only does this recording fairly capture the music, it also includes Elling’s introductions to the tunes, such that from track one to track 12, you are in that audience in the Allen Room; you can reach out and touch Elling’s sleeve, feel the vibration of Clark Sommers’ bass and Ulysses Owens’ bass drum, gaze at Laurence Hobgood’s flying fingers. You relive the trance-like wonder prompted by the ETHEL string artists, and feel your ears smile as Ernie Watts turns notes inside out.

“All or Nothing at All” opens the program as if a modern classical concert, with the strings of ETHEL conjuring Stravinsky. But then the trio swings in, Elling apparently coming on stage, and that voice… We’re soon introduced to Ernie Watts’ agile tenor, and can’t help but notice the assertive drive of Ulysses Owens. The strings provide an intriguing layer of harmony. Elling then uses the backdrop of the Rodgers and Hart standard, “It’s Easy to Remember” to tell the story of the original recording session by Hartman and Coltrane, a “poetic jazz memory” spoken over Laurence Hobgood’s keyboard prose.

Pizzacato strings introduce the title track, Elling in full control of the Sammy Cahn melody through the first verse. Add in the trio, and the song picks up some swing, some splash from Owens’ brushes, some stunning fill from Hobgood who gets his first significant solo opportunity. There’s no wondering why the pianist has been Elling’s music director and collaborator for the past decade. The final chorus finds Elling taking a leaping phrase into the stratosphere before landing, softly, back on earth.

“What’s New?” offers an instrumental prelude showcasing the warm tone of Ernie Watts as well as the filigree touch of Laurence Hobgood, and leading into a medley that includes “Lush Life” and “Autumn Serenade.” Seamlessly Elling moves into the Strayhorn classic that seldom receives such passionate (and elastic) interpretation. Here Elling lays bare each nuance through inflection, timing, interval shifts, and despite his masterful accompanists, he could be alone and equally compelling. Hobgood’s flourish, followed by Watts’ wailing excursion, closes the sequence with a more upbeat “Autumn Serenade,” Elling and strings joining on the second verse.

ETHEL again offers a classically harmonized introduction to a mellow “Say It (Over and Over Again).” Here the hand-in-glove fit between Elling and Hobgood glows, the vocalist’s tone like velvet, the pianist’s fills like spun gold thread, and Watts moving from background to foreground with graceful motion.

“They Say It’s Wonderful” (Irvin Berlin) swings from the first note, Elling hinting at Frank Sinatra while his twists of phrasing are classic Elling. Bassist Clark Sommers pushes the trio along with an assertive pulse while Hobgood has one of his finest moments of the set. A medley arranged by Jim Gailloreto includes a sweet collaboration between Elling and ETHEL on “My One and Only Love” and the slow swing of trio and strings supporting the vocalist’s rhythmic daring on “Nancy With the Laughing Face,” Watts contributing one of his most agile solos to the latter.

Before the final track, Elling offers a round of thank-yous to his cohorts (particularly Laurence Hobgood who serves as arranger), then it’s the vocalist harmonizing an intro with strings for the closing “You Are Too Beautiful.” All musicians seem to soar in the conclusion, Elling stepping back for a prolonged instrumental interlude led by Watts’ serpentine tenor lines, assertive statements from Owens, and a concerto-like movement from ETHEL. The set ends with a realization, perhaps, that Elling has added neither scat nor vocalese to any track, and yet his interpretative power has never been stronger.