Kurt Elling: A standout choice to honor Hartman
Dedicated To You is a tribute to one of the most beloved and beautiful recordings in jazz, John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman. On that six song album, John Coltrane introduces a relatively unknown singer named Johnny Hartman. The two musicians had only just met one another, however in a mere three hours, they produce a classic. Hartman unfortunately never gains much recognition beyond this one album. Coltrane obviously fares a bit better.
Kurt Elling is a standout choice to honor Hartman. He boasts a rich baritone with flawless intonation and an uncanny flair for storytelling, just like Hartman before him. They’re also both from Chicago, which may be related to Elling’s interest in this project (Elling was recently named “Chicagoan of the Year” and holds down a regular night at The Green Mill when not on tour).
The supporting voice on that classic album is, of course, Coltrane. Ernie Watts, a veteran of the LA studio scene, doesn’t jump out as the obvious pick for this role. Nonetheless, he doesn’t disappoint, though at times he sounds more like Lenny Pickett than John Coltrane. But while his tone may not match the expectations of purists, his solos compliment the vocal approach of Elling perfectly.
This is not meant to be a replica of the 1963 classic. In fact, many of the tracks are from Ballads (Impulse!, 1962), another seminal Coltrane album recorded around the same time. It also doesn’t have the spare quartet sound of the original. Elling’s pianist and arranger Laurence Hobgood enlists the ETHEL string quartet to fill-out the group. This provides opportunities for a fuller orchestral feel with a few chamber interludes too.
The CD’s lone instrumental “What’s New?” receives a bit too much care (and vibrato), which when combined with strings starts to drift into the realm of ’70s-style Muzak. The track is short and soon the band is back to business with one of the most memorable songs on the original LP, “Lush Life.”
Don’t be put off by the Ink Spots-style talking in the beginning of the second track, “It’s Easy To Remember.” Elling proceeds to tell the fascinating story of the Coltrane/Hartman session. For those don’t know the album’s history, it may be surprising to learn how loose and unstructured the session really wasâ€”Hobgood likely spent a bit more time preparing for this set. It’s also poignant to hear of Hartman’s struggle to achieve prominence as a vocalist, as his fame is mostly posthumous.
Dedicated to You is a live recording from the Lincoln Center’s lavish Allen Room. The sound quality is first-rate, and the audience enthusiastic. Elling has once again shown that he’s not only a lover of this music, but a big part of its future.