Kurt Elling channels Johnny Hartman
When Clint Eastwood wanted to evoke a mood of simmering romance tinged with rue, he called upon the velvet-smooth baritone of Johnny Hartman, generously ladling the crooner’s voice throughout his film “The Bridges of Madison County.”
For long-suffering fans of Hartman, the brief upsurge in interest sparked by the “Bridges” soundtrack was a welcome development. Remembered almost exclusively for his classic 1963 Impulse collaboration with tenor saxophonist John Coltrane, Hartman enjoyed a brief turn in the spotlight in the mid-’60s but died in obscurity at the age of 60 in 1983.
Over the past year, however, Kurt Elling has been doing his part to pay homage to the oft-overlooked singer whose biggest supporters were fellow musicians such as Earl “Fatha” Hines, Dizzy Gillespie and Erroll Garner. Inspired by the Hartman-Coltrane album, Elling’s new Concord Jazz CD, “Dedicated to You,” features a sumptuous ballad-laden program recorded live at Lincoln Center in January with ï»¿tenor saxophonist Ernie Watts, pianist Laurence Hobgood’s trio, and the string quartet Ethel.
Elling presented the West Coast premiere of the Hartman tribute â€” originally commissioned by the Chicago Jazz Festival in 2006 â€” last year at the Monterey Jazz Festival with the same personnel, and he celebrates the release of the new album at Kuumbwa on Monday, and at Yoshi’s-San Francisco next Thursday through July 12.
As the most celebrated jazz singer of his generation, Elling has often made a point of sharing the spotlight with his illustrious antecedents. Several years ago he assembled the Four Brothers project with Kevin Mahogany, vocalese pioneer Jon Hendricks and Mark Murphy, the great improviser who is Elling’s deepest source of inspiration.
Hartman, however, was hardly an obvious choice for an Elling homage. Elling can deliver ballads with supreme poise and conviction, but he thrives at fierce tempos, delivering a torrential lyrical flow with awe-inspiring rhythmic agility.
“It’s a difficult thing for me to just do a ballad performance,” admits Elling, 42, from New York City, after finishing a run at Birdland. “I really have to be in a different state of mind.
“It’s just one aspect of who we are and what the music has to offer,” he continues, using the plural pronoun to include Hobgood, his longtime creative foil and the arranger of the Hartman material. “We don’t want to just copy what someone else has done so magnificently. We have our own approach. The opportunity and obligation of the living jazz musician is to learn and digest the past, and see what the world sounds like right now.”
What makes the project so powerful is that Elling is joined by the protean tenor saxophonist Watts, who steps gracefully into Coltrane’s shoes as the vocalist’s designated interlocutor. His surging attack and huge, febrile tone provide an ideal counterpoint to Elling’s stentorian baritone.
“Ernie has such vast fields of references, having played with everyone from Cannonball Adderley to Frank Zappa,” Elling says. “He really understands what they used to call show business, the need to come across for people in the seats, and send them home talking about something they’ll remember for a long time. He comes to play music in a way that’s humble but with a specific purpose.
“That’s something I feel a kinship with.”
While Watts is one of jazz’s most formidable saxophonists, he’s spent much of his career as a first-call studio musician in Los Angeles, which has often kept his reputation as improviser under wraps. He first gained attention as a member of drummer Buddy Rich’s band in the mid-1960s, the gig that brought him to L.A.
Watts ended up contributing to countless film scores, television shows and pop sessions, including dates with Steely Dan, Sergio Mendes, Aretha Franklin and Marvin Gaye. Though he also held down a reed chair in Doc Severinsen’s “Tonight Show” Orchestra for 20 years, he managed to keep a steady jazz quartet together.
Over the past two decades he’s gotten his widest jazz exposure with bassist Charlie Haden’s film-noir-inspired Quartet West. In much the same way that Elling taps into Watts’ plangent, tough-but-tender tone, Haden has made canny use of Watts’ plaintive lyricism, designing a series of cinematic recordings around haunting ballads, nostalgic bebop and brooding originals.
For Watts, the opportunity to evoke Coltrane at his most sensuous takes him back to his earliest inspiration.
“I was 13 when I started playing, and the first record I got was ‘Kind of Blue,’ ” says Watts, 64. “I heard Coltrane on that, and it was just an awakening. I heard this sound and beautiful melodic approach.
“Everything he did was like reaching up, and from that point on that’s all I wanted to do, play like that and be involved with music that’s inspirational in that way.”