Kurt Elling: A Three-Dimensional Artist

Kurt Elling can’t remember when he first heard “John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman,” the iconic 1963 album in which the exploratory saxophonist and bedroom balladeer created some of the sultriest jazz performances ever recorded. The sound of Hartman’s suave baritone with Coltrane’s magisterial quartet was, as Elling puts it, “always in the air, like ether.”
“It’s had such an influence in terms of its presence,” says Elling, 41, one of the leading singers in jazz.

“The artfulness of the record is its straightforward notion of great players performing in a way that’s so sympathetic. The lessons are about being emotionally open, the effectiveness of simplicity and the greatness of the American songbook. I’m one of the culprits who keeps turning stuff around, shaking up original tunes and trying to stand the canon on its ear. But sometimes you just need to sing the song.”

Elling will be singing the Coltrane-Hartman repertoire Thursday in Ann Arbor. The concert features Elling with the Laurence Hobgood Trio, the string quartet Ethel and the fluid veteran tenor saxophonist Ernie Watts. Hobgood, Elling’s longtime pianist and collaborator, wrote the arrangements.

The program includes the standards from the original album, among them Billy Strayhorn’s gin-soaked sonnet “Lush Life” and the luminous “My One and Only Love,” plus related material. Some are cast in tender romance shaded by strings. Others are aggressively tailored. A lively waltz-rhythm girds “You Are Too Beautiful” and a gently shuffling parade beat enlivens “Dedicated to You.”

The project started several years ago when the Chicago Jazz Festival invited Elling to re-create the 1963 album. The singer proposed adding a string quartet, and he and Hobgood kept refining the concept. The ensemble recorded live at Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York in January with a release date of June 23 on Concord.

A 3-dimensional artist

Elling, a compact man, fit, with chiseled features and a hipster’s countenance and vocabulary, made his reputation in the mid ’90s in Chicago. He spoke from New York, where he’s living this year.

Stepping into Hartman’s role is an intriguing choice because, at least on the surface, it suggests casting against type. Hartman (1923-83) was a quintessential ballad singer, with a deep-chested, silken voice and phrasing that purred with eroticism. Elling’s voice is medium-bodied, pliable, sinewy and streaked with expressive rust. He’s best known for daredevil improvisations that favor spontaneity and surprise over polished perfection.

He’s a dynamic scat singer and a master of vocalese (writing words to jazz improvisations), transforming solos or compositions by musicians such as Dexter Gordon, Wayne Shorter and Keith Jarrett into literate parables infused with Beat argot and heady evocations of Kenneth Rexroth, Rainer Maria Rilke, Pablo Neruda and Proust. The risk of kitsch is high, but Elling’s command of pitch, rhythm, time and language slips the noose.

For example, his 2007 album “Nightmoves” (Concord) includes a tour de force translation of three heroic tenor saxophone choruses on “Body and Soul” recorded by Gordon in 1976. Elling, inspired by the birth of his daughter, constructs an Iliad of images ranging from Orpheus and Eurydice to the Itsy Bitsy Spider.

“It’s true that I’m not known as a crooner or balladeer,” says Elling. “I’m known for a more crusading or quixotic temperament. But I think when people hear what we’ve done with this material, they’ll be surprised by the amount of energy that we’ve put into them.”

Still, traditional ballads have always formed a cornerstone of Elling’s repertoire, and his pianist says they remain one of his greatest strengths. “Kurt doesn’t know how to sing a lyric without considering the story being told,” says Hobgood.

“He knows how to reach an audience. When he sings ‘Stardust,’ or in the case of this project, ‘Dedicated to You,’ the way he knows how to manipulate the air and the space — he’s a three-dimensional artist.”

Central to the art of jazz singing is the reconciliation of horn-like improvisation with respect for a song’s melody and lyric. Every listener has horror stories of vocalists so intent on sounding jazzy that they quickly descend into mannerism and, finally, incoherence. When Elling sings a standard ballad, he’ll add new layers of melody and rhythm in his phrasing, and he’ll even tweak a clunky lyric. But every move is in the service of the song.

“There is an actor’s responsibility in presenting the emotional content of the lyrics to an audience,” says Elling. “But whether you do that in a straightforward fashion or an ironic fashion or a blasé fashion is all about opportunities, and singers are missing opportunities as artists if they don’t pay attention to the lyric.”