Kurt Elling: Recasting Brilliance

When Johnny Hartman and John Coltrane recorded their one and only album together they created a moment that shaped the art of vocal jazz. An instant of beauty transformed into history. Despite a bias towards the original recording, after listening to Kurt Elling’s lustrous and drawn butter version, it was clear the past could be silenced to make way for innovation. This is Elling’s first recording since his hit, Nightmoves (Concord), in 2007. To say that this album is anything but spectacularly in tune with his usual panache would be an understatement. In a live performance, Elling and his group captured the true spirit of this music. Not one to recount the past with his albums, this successfully arrests that weak-at-the-knees feeling throughout that he’s known for. It’s clear Elling’s a master in his element.
The chosen musicians for this album also speak of Elling’s panache and good taste. Featured throughout the album, Ernie Watts, one of the best saxophonists alive today, lends a vital and confident presence. “What’s New” and “Autumn Serenade” highlight his woven and gorgeous blanket of sound. It’s beyond fitting, it’s hard to imagine anyone else coloring this landscape in a more perfect way. As the mastermind behind the arrangements, Laurence Hobgood, refines the art of listening with just the turn of his phrasing. Through candid yet intimate conversation, he’s aligned with Elling and leads the group with a rare but essential sense of harmony.

Contributing further is the mix of the album. In most recordings it would be difficult to hear the bass unless they’re soloing. This is not the case here. Clark Sommers rings true and honest in tone. The golden color pours a solid foundation to the timber of the group. Ulysses Owens on drums brings an overall emphatic energy. With each splash and well timed counter to the conversations on stage, he only adds to the flow while sitting in that pocket of rhythm that defines a beat rather than imitates one. But there’s more here than just a great recording. Elling, considered a legend of vocal jazz, provides the inside scoop as to how this recording came about.

All About Jazz: Where did the idea to recast the Hartman/Coltrane album come from?

Kurt Elling: Some friends of mine at the Chicago Jazz festival invited me to be on a double bill with Josh Redman. He was going to perform the Africa Brass works. This is considerably more boisterous material. I guess it seemed like a good idea to have a double bill and I immediately asked if I could do more than simply reiterate the material. It was a good place to start but wasn’t the most interesting thing that could be done with the material. They were very open to the possibility of me putting my own slant on things. I was working with Jim Galereto at the time on arrangements for saxophone, string quartet and voice and that was the actual place we started.

Of course I had Laurence Hobgood to write some new arrangements and this is what grew into this project. It wasn’t something I set out with the intent to record. But every time we would perform it beginning with the first time, there were always more promoters who wanted us to play the concert. It became a special project, something we would do on occasion. We finally took it to Monterey and that’s when the label got wind of it. By that time we’d spent so much time refining it and writing new arrangements and getting new ideas for things and putting the group together that it seemed like a good idea to record it.

AAJ: How would you say this recording compares to your other ones, not only the strength of it, but as the challenge of completing a project that culminates in a live recording?

KE: We did a lot of the same kinds of preparation we’ve done with other projects. We have to have everything as organized as it can be. You don’t often have a whole lot of money to spend on stuff in jazz whether you’re recording live or in a studio performance setting. It was expensive to do this, it’s expensive to go into the studio. This is where organization plays a role. You have to be ready for whatever the experience is so you get it as right and you’re as efficient as possible so we’re able to communicate the music you’re there to play. How does it compare? Well, every project is different whether you’re in a studio or live. It all takes a lot of energy and focus and brain power so when you get there you’re ready to hit it.

AAJ: Is there a certain dynamic that happens with the group that comes across with live recordings more so than the refined studio recordings?

KE: There’s a definite live recording crackle to the energy. Having an audience there, and in this case, with only one set to make everything happen means we had to get everything right in one take. In a way, I have an additional little aspect to be proud of because of this. This recording sounds the way it does because that’s the way we played it that night and this feels really good. There’s a certain excitement to live projects that don’t happen in the studio. I’m not sure if I prefer it but if I had unlimited funds I would get to say and do what I prefer. But I’m happy to have this recording out with this kind of quality.

AAJ: Can you talk about your relationship with Laurence Hobgood? Also, how does a partnership/collaboration like effect recordings?

KE: Laurence and I have been working together for fifteen years or so. That obviously is a heavy part of what this is. We definitely work on things together but it’s Laurence that puts the pen to paper. I’m not even sure who I would go to if it wasn’t going to be him.

AAJ: How does this contribute to the dynamic within the group?

KE: We have a stable dynamic within my group. I point and say we’re going over there and then Laurence and I concur about how we’re going to get over there as a group. This also helps me assemble the right cast when we work on arrangements together. It’s almost like the captain of the ship and then the executive officer. The captain says plot a course for this and then everybody goes the right way accordingly.

AAJ: Was knowing that this gig was going to be recorded in any way intimidating? Did that change the way you did things?

KE: We knew we had only the one set and we knew it was going to go that way when we went into the room.

AAJ: What do you think about those that bootleg live concerts? Do you feel it sabotages albums like this one?

KE: I have real mixed feelings about this. It’s almost impossible for it to stop at this point because it’s just so easy to pull off. It’s offensive when people just sit there and brazenly hold up a camera for the duration of a song. I had one guy with an old school VHS camera in Birdland recording me. In the first place, it’s distracting. I can see every body who’s filming. Second, it’s distracting because I’m trying to perform for those who are paying attention and are present. If you’re taking the time to focus your camera or phone, you’re not really being present. Your emotions are in a different state of mind. You may be thinking this is a great performance, but you’re thinking and not just losing yourself in the experience. That’s a shame. It’s stealing a little bit too. I’m here performing for you right now and doing the best I can for you. For you to try to make a little postage stamp out of it disseminates it in ways. I’m singing for you, I’m not singing for people in any other town in that moment.

I understand people’s motivation and I also take it as a compliment that they think it’s worth capturing and that they’re excited about the experience. But if you’re going to do it you have to be discreet. Don’t just hold it up in front of everyone. This makes me feel like I’m in a circus or something. Like you’re looking at that strange sideshow thing or whatever. Just be cool. If you really feel like you want to capture it then try to figure it out without distracting other people. Everybody behind you can see your screen… make it so I don’t have to pay attention to you doing it. It just bugs me.

AAJ: Do you think the digital age, MP3’s and people stealing them, downloading music you can send to anyone etc… do you think it’s hurt your sales and or has hurt the jazz world at all.

KE: The numbers are still so small and the recoup levels are still so great in jazz that it doesn’t matter to us. I’m going to make my money from a live performance. That having been said you know, it’s definitely made a mess of the music scene and the way it’s been structured. The inability of the music industry to twist and turn with the advance of technology is also to blame. It’s just as much a problem that the infrastructure and those who run it can’t seem to make the boat turn fast enough to keep up with the times. As a rule they also aren’t imaginative enough to figure out what the new business model should be. This has hurt plenty of musicians in of itself. But as a rule, it’s hurt musicians that would have made royalties. I don’t anticipate making royalties until much much later in my career. Have I sold any of my records to make royalties that would be affected? No. So do I worry about it? No.

AAJ: What is the next project on the table for you?

KE: I’ve got a number of things we’ve been demoing up and playing on the road that’s more of what people expect us to be doing. I’ve got new lyrics for Joe Zawinul and Wayne Shorter and some more Keith Jarrett tunes. There are some more originals and there’s going to be some boogaloo vibes too. We’re going to have a lot of fun with it. I only take worthy projects and I try to do the best that I can with them. You want to give an overall shape to your career. Why should this overall shape be a totally straight arrow? It’s much more interesting to give twists and turns and to surprise yourself and other people.

AAJ: Is there something you want your listeners to get out of Dedicated to You, something that maybe is more unique to you that should really be touched upon?

KE: What we did here should not be mistaken for an overall course correction of our normal trajectory. This is a special project we’re happy to put out because of it’s quality. It isn’t in any way an indication that we’re giving up on our more innovative attempts. I hope you’ll listen for the innovation within our interpretation of this great material rather than look for the most outlandish free floating cosmic things we often head for. On all of my records I’m telling a story that takes you from the first to the last composition. People are going to go their own way and that’s cool. I hope they pick out what they need and that they find what they need. But I’m always trying to keep them listening. I always hope it’s groovy enough and I’ve given them reason enough to come back and listen more.