CD Review of Man in the Air

Single-handedly, Kurt Elling has reinvigorated the art of vocalese, and popularized it, as no other singer, male or female, has in decades. With unpredictability, intellect and a sense of adventure, Elling’s treatments of songs that we think are definintive turn out to be subject to further interpretation after all, as Elling finds hidden gems within the music that escaped us through past repetition. And Elling’s talents are varied. He can croon as it so moves him, as he did most especially on This Time It’s Love, or he can scat with individuality and cliff-hanging daring as he did throughout much of Close Your Eyes.
On Elling’s latest CD, Man in the Air, though, he withholds the obvious romance, poetry, street-corner story-telling like “Rent Party,” or tongue-twisting scatting for a more serious, and a more subtle, endeavor: writing the lyrics to some instrumentally performed compositions that just beg to be sung. And now they are.

Who but Elling would dare to apply words to the virtually sacred John Coltrane piece, “Resolution”? And with the blessing of Alice Coltrane at that. The interesting aspect of his lyrics for tunes like that one is the respect he shows for the spirit of the composition, instead of merely sticking words to the melodic lines. Instead of writing obsequious lyrics paying respect to Coltrane, Elling combines his religious studies with the intended spirituality of the tune to come up with lyrics like “And Jesus, remember every promise made. Present yourself in the middle of the prayers that we made.” And the repetitive rhyming of “Put it to the test. It will do the rest. I confess. It will be like climbing Mount Everest. I can’t express…” recalls none other than the technique of the master of vocalese, Jon Hendricks. Still, with the backup of Elling’s regular rhythm section of Laurence Hobgood, Rob Amster and Frank Parker, Jr., “Resolution” swings–even as Elling tackles some difficult vocal phrasing, clearly articulated in spite of its rapidity, that no other singer could match.

As on almost all of Elling’s earlier CD’s, the presence of Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock is felt. That’s true certainly on Hancock’s slowly and deliberately unfolding “A Secret I” (originally “Alone and I”). But it’s true as well through the intervallic logic of tunes like “Man in the Air” as Hobgood elaborates on Elling’s singing through the density of his chords, implicit rhythms and the rightness of his modulations.

Even on a tune like Pat Metheny and Lyle Mays’s “Minuano,” certainly subdued and haunting in its own right, Elling adds irony through his lyrics, which narrate attraction and mysteriousness through his own unconventional lyrics: “Darkest midnight is swallowed in oceans of laughter. I follow into lightness. I hear you. You’re calling me out of my sadness.” At which point the mood of the piece lightens and changes to that of dancing and singing: “Dancing along a road that leads to you. Singing a song that blossoms in a few…”

Just so that the entire CD isn’t consumed by seriousness (even though the wonders of the CD call for repeated listening for heightened appreciation), Elling bisects the CD with a multi-tracked finger-snapping canon of nonsensical lyrics on “The Uncertainty of the Poet,” the fondness of the sounds of words exceeding the necessity for meaning.

Still, Elling includes his and Hobgood’s arrangements of lesser-known jazz tunes like Courtney Pine’s 6/8 “Higher Vibe,” whose vibe and title create thematic substance that lends itself to Elling’s words. The same principle of highlighting works deserving of greater attention like Bobby Watson’s equally gorgeous tune, “Hidden Jewel,” which is softened by the glassiness of Stefon Harris’s vibes in accompaniment.

Reviving interest in some long-overlooked jazz classics, as well as adding vocal meaning to a song as popular as “In the Winelight,” forever associated with Grover Washington, Jr., Kurt Elling’s Man in the Air distinguishes his career even further through the complexity of the undertaking and the success of the results.