Dedicated to You: Being true to its essence

The Johnny Hartman-John Coltrane partnership left a small discography but a large shadow. On Dedicated To You, Kurt Elling and Ernie Watts further memorialize and enshrine that brief encounter—only six songs—in the best waypossible: by being true to its essence while also taking it to a somewhat different place.

Hartman is moderately well remembered today as a crooner in the great Crosby-Sinatra-Bennett tradition, but even more so on the coattails of the cult of Coltrane, which is inclined to worship everything the saxophonist ever
touched. That he touched Hartman does him credit. But their single Impulse! album in 1963 was definitely Hartman’s show, not Coltrane’s.

He went to the American songbook, took a helping of Berlin, Rodgers, Strayhorn and three others, and laid down essentially straight interpretations. Hartman was the actor-balladeer, never the scat singer or improviser. Coltrane accompanied with a lyrical empathy that never fought the moment.

Elling, whose light baritone has the basic downy softness of a traditional crooner, evokes the essential musicality Hartman brought to the material but with far less candlelight and romance. Elling, though restrained, plays to his
own strength and takes a somewhat wider interpretative latitude. Hartman’s “They Say It’s Wonderful,” for example, dripped with intimacy and seduction. Elling’s is hip, sly and cool with a soft beat. Whereas Hartman created a consistent mood, Elling expands the range of the music. He flexes his virtuosity with a couple of octaves on “Lush Life” (sounding a trifle strained as he leaps up on the word “dive”) and a bold falsetto climax on “Dedicated To You” as opposed to the slow sensual caress that was Hartman’s specialty. But Elling’s mission here is not to imitate but to interpret a famed one time coupling of talent, something he has done with respect, yet integrity.

As part of the latitude he has allowed himself, Elling has added a string quartet to the mix. It slinks softly in the shadows, underpinning the music with a subtle but never intrusive formality. The counterpoint is especially well matched to Elling on “My One And Only Love,” by far his most intimate performance and the only one without his accompanying regular trio with Laurence Hobgood. The wonderful Ernie Watts is Coltrane’s proxie, and he solos and accompanies with a crowded, double time individuality carved from the language of Coltrane.

With only six songs to work with, Elling necessarily supplements the program with a few extras, including a Watts solo piece on “What’s New,” a couple of Sinatra staples (“All Or Nothing At All” and “Nancy With The Laughing Face”) and a warm reflection on the original session. The performance was recorded live early this year as part of Lincoln Center’s American Songbook series.

4 stars

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Downbeat’s The Hot Box: Critics’ Comments

Kurt Eiling, Dedicated To You

When he’s singing the songs, not telling stories or scatting, Elling makes some wonderful music. He has a rare tool, silky and giant, and the dexterity to fashion something unique out of it, with modern soul twists in the phraseology that shouldn’t work, but most often do. This project is largely about the songs, which make a solid platform, though the dedication calls attention to the fact that where Hartman’s approach was sheer humility, Elling’s is steeped in ego. — John Corbett   3 1/2 stars

The reedy voiced Chicago hipster has made a creative and thoughtful translation of a classic album—I especially like the string writing for the quartet, Ethel—but with the exception of the quietly simple “Autumn Serenade,” the music—like Elling—always seems to be drawing attention to itself, rather than the message it’s so earnestly trying to send. — Paul de Barros   2 1/2 stars

I appreciate the way the intrepid singer bends his lines—Elling keeps improv in the front of his mind. But occasionally, it’s too much sugar for a dime. There’s something overly elaborate about his choices here that stiffens several sections—could it be the string quartet? Sweet Ernie Watts maneuvers, though.— Jim Macnie   3 stars