Playfully Laying Claim to Songs of Two Jazz Greats

“John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman,” recorded in 1963, is rightly hailed as one of the finest jazz vocal albums ever made. A marvel of low-flickering intensity, it represents the perfect fulfillment of Hartman’s calling as a balladeer, and an improbable peak in Coltrane’s ascent as a bandleader. It’s one of the great boudoir records, irrespective of genre, but it’s also an object lesson in gallant restraint.
Kurt Elling knows all of this, inside and out. He’s a jazz singer indebted to both artists, though his temperament — dexterous and mercurial, with a penchant for extravagant digression — reflects deeper affinities with Coltrane. At the same time Mr. Elling has proved his finesse as a Hartman-like melodist, on multiple albums and many more stages.

On Wednesday night at the Allen Room, as part of the American Songbook series at Lincoln Center, he performed a concert called “Dedicated to You,” after a track on the Coltrane-Hartman album. And while he sang the album’s six songs, they were interspersed with others, sometimes in medley form. (Tape was rolling for a live recording.)

Joined not only by Ernie Watts, a tenor saxophonist in the post-Coltrane lineage, but also by Ethel, a doggedly eclectic string quartet, Mr. Elling was going for a spirit of invigorated play.

The string arrangements, by his pianist, Laurence Hobgood, encouraged that sense of freedom. They were textured but light, with a modernistic sheen, and neither cloying nor astringent. Some effects — a round of music-box pizzicato, a sudden blush of trills — bordered on a subtle ostentation, but Ethel, like Mr. Hobgood’s rhythm section, served a background purpose. So, too, did Mr. Watts, who couldn’t help sacrificing melody for a kind of silvery efflorescence.

Mr. Elling can occasionally fall into similar habits, but here he reined himself in, laying claim to the songs through innumerable small decisions. Unequipped to match Hartman’s plummy majesty on “They Say It’s Wonderful,” he dialed up the tempo to a jaunty stroll, radiating aplomb.

On a version of “Dedicated to You” that suggested a breeze through bare branches, he sang with quiet care, releasing his full voice only at the couplet “A lifetime could be/Just one heavenly day.” And on “Lush Life” Mr. Elling got perversely clever with his phrasing. After “tempt me to madness,” he drew back from the microphone to wail a tormented vowel. (It was “I,” which began the next line.) And when he sang the equally fraught phrase “I was wrong,” the final word landed in his falsetto register, on an unlikely note.

Mr. Elling was taking liberties while exposing buried truths in the song. Accessing both Coltrane and Hartman, he sounded like no one but himself.