Vancouver Jazz Fest: Kurt Elling pays homage to Johnny Hartman and John Coltrane

Dedicated to You, the new CD from jazz singer Kurt Elling, pays tribute to the 1963 duo recording that paired vocalist Johnny Hartman and saxophonist John Coltrane. What began as a commission from the Chicago Jazz Festival has turned into a year’s work, as Elling not only made a recording of Hartman-Coltrane songs, he’s touring the project, a tour that brings him to The Centre in Vancouver for Performing Arts on Friday as part of the Vancouver International Jazz Festival.
But really, could two singers be more different than Johnny Hartman and Kurt Elling?

Hartman, who sang in a deep baritone, was primarily a balladeer who interpreted jazz standards. Elling is a risk-taker who uses his voice often the way an instrumentalist would. He doesn’t so much interpret jazz standards as totally re-invent them. When he’s tackled Coltrane in the past, he sang notes the way Coltrane played them on the saxophone.

Elling’s approach to Hartman was not to sing like the late vocalist, but to pay homage to him while forging a new direction.

“Any kind of reiteration, I think, misses the point of jazz,” says Elling, on the phone from his home city of Chicago. “I’d been working in a couple of other settings, one of them with a string quartet, and I told Laurence [Hobgood, Elling’s pianist and composer] let’s do that, and we went from there.

“I would say, ‘Let’s do this in three [3/4 time], and we would work on it and Laurence would go off and be a genius. I try to do what suits the material and amplifies my intuition of what my best singing would be on a piece of music.

“Johnny Hartman’s gift isn’t that far removed in intention from other more distinctly jazz-oriented singers, or not far removed from what I try to do,” says Elling. “I try to sing with clarity and with an emotionally direct presentation. Johnny Hartman’s real lesson was that just being open and loving the music and being faithful to it is enough. You don’t have to change the melody to make it an important music experience.”

Elling has worked for the past 15 years with Hobgood, an amazing talent who should be better known than he is. Why isn’t he a household name?

“He’s saddled with an average singer. He hitched his wagon to the wrong star,” says Elling with a laugh. “At a performance, he’s noticed from his first note. But because he comes with me, people tend to think of him as connected to me. Journalists tend to focus on me and mention him incidentally, if at all, so he doesn’t get the kind of press exposure and the accolades that a solo performer would get.”

“People see him as an adjunct of the Kurt Elling Quartet, whereas I see him as fully half the deal.”

Elling, Hobgood, bassist Harish Raghavan and drummer Aaron McLendon will be accompanied by veteran tenor saxophonist Ernie Watts.

“Ernie’s a tremendous musician who’s worked with everyone from Cannonball Adderley to Frank Zappa,” says Elling. “He’s brought so much to the table for this presentation, not only directly for the music but for the way he is off the bandstand, his really gracious and open attitude to things.”