Jazz vocalist Elling is used to letting the music evolve

Jazz vocalist Kurt Elling’s eclectic reach includes everything from scat and vocalese to great American standards to sung instrumental music. His eighth and latest album, however, is a less-taxing-than-usual tribute to a classic 1963 jazz duet album by saxophonist John Coltrane and singer Johnny Hartman.
Friends at the Chicago Jazz Festival suggested that Elling, a Chicago native, interpret the Coltrane-Hartman material in a concert at the city’s Symphony Center.

“It wasn’t like it had all this heavy import on it,” the ever-touring Elling recalled last week. “So, I was like, ‘Well, sure, man. I’ll do that, especially if you guys let me do my own thing to it.’

“It started out being one gig but then it grew over time to become all kinds of things. And while it’s been a lot of work, it’s definitely been a lot of fun pulling it together and seeing it grow and evolve.”

Following that first show in Chicago, Elling performed, by popular demand, the Coltrane-Hartman material at Carnegie Hall, the Monterey Jazz Festival and elsewhere.

“There were four or five promoters in Symphony Center and they wanted to have something for their own festivals and such,” Elling said. “I thought it was gonna be a one-time lick, but we had requests right away to do it again.”

The invitations multiplied and Elling’s Hartman-Coltrane performances extended over a two-year period.

“We finally ended up at Monterey and, by that time, we had stretched and changed. And then the cats at the record label heard it. They were, like, ‘Oh, man, that’s killing. Can we have that?’ I said, ‘Yeah, sure. Why not? Sounds like fun.’ ”

A few concerts later, Elling, saxophonist Ernie Watts, the Laurence Hobgood Trio and the string quartet, ETHEL, performed a concert at Lincoln Center that was recorded and recently released as Dedicated to You: Kurt Elling Sings the Music of Coltrane and Hartman.

“There’s all kind of upside to how the thing came together,” Elling said. “I mean, getting this much quality music time with Ernie Watts is great. And getting strings to meld effectively with what we’re about was a different kind of a challenge. It’s been a gas.”

All of that and Elling didn’t even have to sweat his own performance.

“It’s a lot easier than my usual stuff, which is quite a bit more brazen and challenging,” he said. “So it was a nice vocal rest to sing these great arrangements that Laurence wrote and have them be the framework for everything.”

Elling and pianist-arranger Laurence Hobgood’s partnership began more than 15 years ago. The two share stages for 90 percent of Elling’s gigs.

“By this point we’ve done so many arrangements together that I can almost anticipate his suggestions,” Elling said. “He’s gonna come up with some really hip, altered changes. If they’re too hip, I’ll say, ‘Hey, man. Lets keep this one inside a little more and go out a little further on the next one.’ He’ll say, ‘Yeah, man. OK.’ And then we work on it together until we find the right groove.”

Even after years of working together, Elling and Laurence’s collaboration is ever-evolving.

“There’s always more material and a new challenge to pull stuff together for a different kind of a date,” Elling said. “We get ourselves into all kinds of trouble.”

His show in Baton Rouge next week, Elling said, includes selections from his Hartman-Coltrane album and material that will appear on a forthcoming recording.

“We’re always moving into the future here, so definitely some Coltrane-Hartman stuff and then things that we’re working on for something that we’ll be recording in December and also fun things that I think people are looking forward to hearing from us.”

And whatever plans Elling and company make are subject to change.

“Every time we walk into the room I say, ‘Oh, its this kind of a space.’ And then when I see the people and their reactions, I say, ‘Oh, let’s go this way with this.’ ”