John Coltrane & Johnny Hartman Are Channeled With Affection By Kurt Elling & Ernie Watts

It’s always a treat when an artist sends you back into the library to pull out old vinyl or CDs that you have not thought about for awhile. Kurt Elling, the jazz singer, and the saxophonist Ernie Watts are touring with a tribute to “John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman,” the album of duets they recorded on March 7, 1963. The album is one of those distinctly beautiful and romantic albums that any jazz fan would hold onto it with a hope to someday share it; it’s jazz at its most sensual and inviting.
Hartman’s baritone, Trane’s tenor sax and McCoy Tyner’s supple piano take the album’s six ballads at a relaxed pace, each note articulated with warmth and belying the fact that there was little, if any, rehearsal for the work. It reflected Coltrane’s mood at the time, his most recent recordings being the equally sensitive “Ballads” and his collaboration with Duke Ellington. (Their “Prelude to a Kiss” still sends shivers).

Elling and Watts, whose best known work has been with Charlie Haden’s Quartet West, add a string quartet and take their program into more upbeat terrain. Thursday at USC’s Bing Theater, “Coltrane and Hartman” was a starting point – two of the album’s cuts, “Lush Life” and “Autumn Serenade,” went into a medley with “What’s New” and “My One and Only Love” was partnered “Nancy (With the Laughing Face).” The emphasis was Coltrane, with Elling using his voice in the styles of both Hartman and Trane. He connected in the baritone with the singer, using flourishes, some of them wordless, to channel a Coltrane improvisation.

Watts has a tone substantially different from Coltrane. Trane’s playing at the time was moans, caresses and hallelujahs; Watts opts for pleas, promises and linear thought. Pianist Laurence Hobgood, who has been with Elling for 15 years, combined Tyner’s romanticism with some of Bill Evans” pensiveness in addition to writing the arrangements for the evening.

There are no plans at this time to record the program, which also includes Coltrane versions of “Bessie’s Blues,” “All of Nothing at All and “Say It (Over and Over Again).” Elling, who now records for Concord after a decade with Blue Note, is in the early stages of selecting songs with producer Don Was for his next album.

On a side note, Elling has one of the most interesting collection of links I have ever seen on a website.