Kurt Elling Pays Homage

Friday night at the University of Minnesota’s Ted Mann Concert Hall, singer Kurt Elling and his group paid musical homage to one of the greatest — and most unsung — of all jazz vocalists: the late Johnny Hartman.
Elling and a talented ensemble revisited one of the epic jazz-vocal recordings: Hartman’s 1963 pairing with saxophone icon John Coltrane. Hartman, who died in 1983, never received the commercial “push” his talent warranted, and didn’t achieve anything approaching pop-crossover until after his death, when Clint Eastwood used his music in his film “The Bridges of Madison County.” Hartman was elected to the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2000, quite a feat for a singer unknown to most Americans.

Elling and his crew opened with “All or Nothing At All,” playing it at a slower tempo than Coltrane’s own, recorded version. After an instrumental lead-in by pianist Laurence Hobgood, Elling didn’t waste any time unfurling the fabled, four-octave baritone that has made him today’s top male jazz vocalist.

Hobgood, Elling’s longtime arranger and accompanist, crafted some artful, new arrangements of the classic material. As Elling pointed out in his between-song remarks, it wouldn’t have made sense to perform the tunes exactly as they were done by Coltrane and Hartman — “then you could just go home and listen to your Johnny Hartman record.”

Ironically, it’s a safe bet that relatively few of those in the audience Friday night own any Hartman recordings,
given his limited recording career and resultant obscurity. And that’s why Elling put together his “Dedicated To You” project — to honor one of his primary vocal influences, and also evoke some posthumous praise.

It’s an admirable motive, and could also be considered a gutsy move by an artist who’s confident in his own ability and artistic identity. That’s because Elling’s project invites listeners to compare him to Hartman. The 41-year old Elling is an accomplished vocalist, but he lacks the uncommonly rich, resonant baritone that made Hartman an icon — if only among jazz aficionados.

In reimagining the Coltrane-Hartman material, Elling and Hobgood shrewdly made an atypical (for jazz) choice of instrumentation. Rather than a horn section, they enlisted the Ethel Quartet, four Julliard-trained string players dedicated to performing new compositions by classical and jazz composers.

The New York-based quartet includes violinist Cornelius Defallo, violinist Mary Rowell, violist Ralph Farris and cellist Dorothy Lawson. As featured soloist, Elling recruited tenor saxophonist Ernie Watts, who’s been a first-call player on the Southern California jazz and studio-recording scene for decades.

Watts’ eloquent, resounding tenor solos brightened each tune. Watts stuck to his own well-rounded sax tone, rather than trying to emulate the signature sound of Trane, who was one of his early inspirations.

At certain points, though, Elling used his well-developed scatting ability to replicate Coltrane horn riffs.

The concert included several of the ballads that made the 1963 session a landmark recording; among them “Dedicated To You,” an early Ella Fitzgerald hit; “My One and Only Love,” made popular by Frank Sinatra; and the Billy Strayhorn standard “Lush Life,” originally recorded by Nat King Cole.

“Dedicated” was a good example of Hobgood’s creativity as an arranger, featuring a melodic intro played pizzicato (plucking, rather than bowing the strings) by the four string players, and some sensitive brushwork by young drummer Ulysses Owens. It made for a delicate, but swinging arrangement.

On “Lush Life,” Elling employed one of his trademark stage techniques. Rather than holding the microphone in his hand, he left it on the mic stand and would occasionally bob and weave back and forward, using his distance from the mic to smoothly modulate the volume and rhythm of his vocal phrasing.