Out of a set of American Songbook tunes, Elling’s created another original

On this live recording from New York’s Jazz at Lincoln Center, Chicagoan Kurt Elling remembers fellow baritone Johnny Hartman. He’s taken inspiration from Hartman and John Coltrane’s partnership in the 60s and got together with sax player Ernie Watts, but it’s not in Elling’s nature to copy, so they most definitely do it their way.
Elling’s recent albums have been getting more intellectual and eclectic, featuring the poetry of Rumi and plenty of vocalese, so it’s puzzling that he should choose to sing a whole album of standards with a string quartet (isn’t everyone ‘with strings’ at the moment?).

The real surprise, though, is that Elling is just as engaging and creative working with standards as he is when he’s turning a Walt Whitman poem into vocal art.

Elling plays the Beat poet on a spoken interlude It’s Easy to Remember, setting the scene of Johnny Hartman’s only recording with John Coltrane in 1963. All the details are there, from the snow on the ground to the joking and smoking in the car on the way to the session.

Elling’s pianist Laurence Hobgood has written all the string arrangements played here by the ETHEL string quartet, and Hobgood has a knack of getting the strings to describe intriguing sub-plots to the songs. In My One And Only Love, the buzzing and gossiping strings hint at a sadness that the song doesn’t convey in its words.

Dedicated To You launches into a dynamic Latin groove with Elling swooping up to unfeasibly high notes, while Lush Life is perfect for Kurt with its poetic introduction and its opportunities for vocal leaps and contortions. Ernie Watts plays a blistering solo on You Are Too Beautiful, taking the song from introspective ballad to hard-rocking anthem.

There are few similarities between Johnny Hartman and Kurt Elling’s treatment of these songs. Hartman was not an improviser, while Elling is a master of vocal gymnastics. Their one connection is in the depth and quality of their voices and the way they both slur effortlessly up and down the octaves. Where Johnny Hartman sounds polite and serious, Kurt Elling revels in despair one moment and elation the next.

Out of a set of American Songbook tunes, Elling’s created another original.